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Disney Afloat

Writer Jay Heinrichs and his son, George, went on a Disney cruise to discover if the Magic Kingdom really includes the seven seas.

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The first sight of the Magic provides you with one of those Disney Moments in which you feel like the leading character in a movie. The black, pleasingly rounded hull is topped by two big red funnels with the Disney Cruise Line emblem on them—Mickey Mouse rampant on a field of waves. When my son, George, and I first see the ship from a car on the highway to Port Canaveral, Florida, we are still 9 miles away. We look at each other with expressions of awe. George says, "Dad, that ship is humongous."

And so it is. It has 14 decks, four swimming pools (including one with a water slide), deck bars offering good junk food, four restaurants, and an ESPN sports bar with 14 TV sets. The Magicruns three- and four-day jaunts to the Bahamas, including a stop at Disney’s own private island.

I have made it clear to George that we’re here—trying out the water slide, eating like pigs, watching what Disney calls "original Broadway-style entertainment"—to gather facts about the ship. Besides, I don’t want my son, who just turned 11, to be sucked into Disney’s packaged form of imagination. Disney redefined the amusement park after World War II by making it a temple to an American past that never existed. People pay their 40 bucks and get an idealized Main Street—the center of both Disneyland and Disney World’s Magic Kingdom—that celebrates American simplicity and frugality.

After a year in the cruise business, Mickey has definitely found his sea legs, which shouldn’t come as a surprise–he began his Disney career as Steamboat Willie.

And now, with its new cruise line, the company is taking a fantasy ride and stretching it over three or four days. While Disney is not exactly sailing unknown seas in the cruise industry, its newest, longest ride does show some chutzpah. This is, after all, a company that specializes in suspending disbelief. That’s easy to do on, say, the Jungle Cruise, an animated ride at Disney’s amusement parks that lasts for 10 minutes. But what about a real cruise on a real ship, going to a real place like Nassau? Rick, the cruise director, says he asked one of the first couples to sail the Magicwhy they hadn’t given the cruise the highest possible rating on their evaluation form. "Because it rained in Nassau," they told him. Well, you can’t blame the couple. Disney is supposed to be better than real. But I want George to know real life, not wished-for life.

It won’t be easy. When we board, we head to our stateroom, which has a big double bed, a couch, a split bath, a veranda, and a TV that shows lots of Disney stuff. We don’t linger, however. We dump our bags and start exploring the ship. There’s a delightfully retro feel to it—an elaborate Chihuly glass sculpture in the lobby, oversize chairs everywhere, 6-foot-diameter portholes in the public spaces, and endless art deco design touches.

On the open upper deck, we wait in line for poolside pizza. Later, we head to the 950-seat theater to watch the Broadway-style show. It’s about a princess, a pirate ship, a dragon, and something having to do with ghosts. "The special-effects dragon was cool," George says, charitably.

Back up on deck, we go to swim, but the family pool is like the Ganges, packed with kids. Instead we hit Pluto’s Dog House Snack Bar, where George snags a wiener and fries. "I’m full," he says, and we look for the dessert buffet. We need to hurry; it’s nearly time for dinner. Our first night’s feast is at Animator’s Palate, a room that’s black and white during the hors d’oeuvres and gradually takes on color as the courses progress. "This is the coolest restaurant I’ve ever been in," George says. "And it’s moving."

We wake up our first morning as the ship steams into Nassau Harbor. A Bahamian tout talks us into taking a ferryboat to Paradise Island and away from Disney’s hermetic bubble. George and I visit the Atlantis Hotel, an $800 million non-Disney extravaganza with a water slide that goes down a faux Mayan ruin and through a shark tank. We’re not allowed on the slide because we’re not hotel guests, so we ride the ferry back to the ship and wedge ourselves in among the bodies in the family pool.

Wet and slightly bruised, George and I duck into Quarter Masters, a darkly lit video game parlor with a downhill ski machine. As the soft sun begins to set on the Caribbean, George and I race each other in the virtual snow. We’re having a Disney Moment. After blowing eight bucks in 15 minutes, I order George a free room service dinner and go to my table in Parrot Cay, a Caribbean-themed restaurant. I duck out before dessert, feeling guilty about leaving my son alone in the stateroom. When I get back, though, I find a note from George telling me he is out to join up with the other kids.

The counselors tell me that the 11-to-12 age group is dancing in Studio Sea, the discotheque. And there he is, bouncing amid smiling girls. "This music is so loud my heart is beating to the same rhythm," he says. He begs for 20 more minutes. I go back to the cabin, doze off, and awake an hour and a half later to find that George still hasn’t returned. I find him listening to a counselor’s story about the Bermuda Triangle and pull him out: "This is a little early in your life to get yelled at for not coming home at night." I feel betrayed; my own son has gone native.

We sleep with the door open to the veranda. The ship is so big you can’t hear its engines—only the rush of the water.

The sun’s earliest rays wake me just as we pull in to Castaway Cay. The island is a 2-mile sand spit amid a shallow sea, yet our giant ship cruises right up to a wharf that juts from the beach. It’s like watching a 747 land in your driveway. Disney brags about making dreams come true, and it spent millions to make this one happen, dredging a 3,000-foot channel, creating a whole new peninsula, and pouring a port’s worth of concrete.

George and I snorkel around a 15-acre lagoon, gazing at tropical fish below. Fake treasure chests appear on the bottom and a bizarre underwater statue of Mickey Mouse points us in the right direction. Afterward, I sit on a chaise and gaze at my son digging in the fine sand; the impossibly large ship looms in the background. It’s another Disney Moment.

We’re sorry when the ship’s horn blasts and we have to get back on the tram. But George and I take a tour of the bridge. An officer lets George push a button that makes seven big horns play "When You Wish Upon a Star" over the whole ship, island, and big sea beyond. George sits speechless. We leave the bridge a little bit further sucked in to Disney.

I dine with the adults in Palo, a high-end restaurant on the top deck. I have a risotto that rivals any in New York or San Francisco. George is watching cartoons and eating room service snacks when I get back to the cabin. From bed we can see the nearly full moon glisten on the water.

The next morning we wake for our last cruise day, which the ship spends at sea. George gathers facts while I talk to fellow passengers. Nearly all of them are taking the cruise as part of a package, three days at Disney World and four on the cruise. The kids all say they like Disney World better, while the adults all prefer the ship. Most of the vacations seem to be funded by grandparents. This makes sense: It’s hard to spend $800 a person or more for a week-long Disney World-and-cruise vacation and still send your kids to college.

After dark, George and I discover that for the first time there isn’t a long line of kids waiting to go down the water slide. George rides it 15 times, sliding and sliding while I sit wrapped in towels against the cool night air. This, too, is a Disney Moment: I get to play the part of a prosperous family man, relaxing in style while my kid enjoys himself. "I feel good!" James Brown sings over the PA.

We disembark at Port Canaveral the next day and head to the Magic Kingdom. George talks me into an hour’s wait in line for Splash Mountain, a water ride that ends with a gut-flinging plummet. Boarding our plastic log, George and I float through an idyllic cartoon scene of Brer Rabbit and his gang fishing. Their animatronic heads bob while they lip-synch "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah." My son rests his head on my shoulder. I pull him closer. The waterfall lies ahead, but somehow it seems hours away. We’re still in cruise mode. It’s real. It’s actual. Everything is satisfactual.

George’s Ship Facts:

Every day, 8,260 cups of coffee are served. My dad had more than his share.

The ship, 964 feet in length, is almost as long as the Eiffel Tower is tall. If it were any bigger, it wouldn’t fit through the Panama Canal.

The Magicweighs 90 million pounds and its five engines can make it go 24 knots (27 miles per hour).

The anchor weighs 28,200 pounds, as much as two Tyrannosaurus rexdinosaurs.

There are 875 staterooms. Almost half have verandas like ours. Three- quarters of them have ocean views.

On board are 1,950 telephones, 1,367 miles of cable, 5,390 pillows, and 15,000 towels.

Five thousand eggs are used every morning; 1,956 of them are scrambled.

There were 650 kids between the ages of 3 and 17 on our cruise. Grown-up passengers totaled about 1,900. There were 919 crew members from 40 different countries.

The ship can make 500,000 gallons of freshwater from seawater in a single day. The Disney people say that’s enough glasses of water for everyone in Chicago and Houston combined.

This article was first published in May 1999. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.