Thursday, June 10, 2004

Trip Report #22, May 2002 on the Disney Magic Western Caribbean Itinerary

"The Disney Magic is a place where fantasy is reality and reality is fantastic."

That quote from Captain Henry during his talk at the Navigator series pretty much sums up our Disney cruise #22, the second sailing of the new Western Caribbean itinerary on May 25th. It was a week of escape into a fantasy world with no job to go to, no meals to cook or house to clean, and chocolates on the pillow every night before waking up in a new port almost every morning…what a fantastic reality!

Although we've been sailing on the Wonder almost a monthly, it had been a year and a half since our last trip on the Magic (we did the Eastern itinerary in January of 2001). Although the Wonder is our "home," I was anxious to try out the new ports and to indulge in the relaxation of a week-long cruise. The only problem with 3-day Wonder cruises is that just when the fun is getting started, it's already over. Here is my report on a cruise that was so enjoyable we are already planning to do it again.

Although we had a warm winter, Chicago was still struggling in the grip of a cold streak that just wouldn't give up when we started our journey on 5/24 (since 9/11, we fly out the night before all our cruises). We were flying out of Midway on ATA. I used to prefer Midway, but. since its remodeling, it's as bad as O'Hare. Since it was a holiday week, I was hoping that the economy lots would be full so that we could park in their remote lot. There is a $15 flat fee for remote vs. $9 per day for economy, and the shuttle bus is typically less crowded when you return. But there is no rhyme or reason to when they open the remote lots. They were closed when we arrived, even though all of the economy lots were full. Instead, we were pointed to the parking garage, which is $22 a day (ouch!). The bad thing about Midway is that there are no independent parking lots, so you're at the airport's mercy.

Fortunately, before going to the garage, I pulled up to one of the closed economy lots and was given a flyer for a special rate of $12 per day. That's more than the economy rate but much less than the usual, and the extra $3 per day was well worth it since we didn't have to mess with a shuttle bus at all. Just park, take the elevator, and voila! You're at the check-in area.

ATA has E-ticket check-in kiosks at Midway, which is much better than waiting in the perpetually crowded regular check-in line. We had left quite early, since we knew we'd probably blow a lot of time figuring out the parking situation, so we were able to get an exit row. Rather than hang out at the gate for a couple of hours, we decided to eat an early dinner so that we wouldn't have to worry about food once we reached Orlando. We set up shop in the food court, planning to head to our gate at boarding time.

One good thing about the "new" Midway is the food court, which has lots of great choices, from Mexican to Asian to Irish to pure American, and Ben & Jerry's for dessert. The lines are typically very long, but we didn't mind since we had lots of time. We enjoyed a leisurely meal, and soon it was time to head to the plane.

Our flight was smooth and uneventful, just the way I like it, and soon we were at MCO, taxiing to the gate. ATA is notoriously slow at delivering luggage, but they actually weren't too bad that night (despite having to wait for all the luggage from a Puerto Rico flight to be cleared first). Typically we would be booked into an airport-area hotel via Priceline or Hotwire (I can usually get something between $25 to $28, including free shuttle and often breakfast too). But this time we had used the last of hubby's Marriott Rewards points to book the Fairfield. I was a little leery, as we'd stayed there once before and waited an hour and a half for their shuttle. Two phone calls later, it eventually arrived with no apologies or explanation. But this time it was there within ten minutes--not bad! I was anxious to plop into a nice, soft bed to dream Disney dreams of the week ahead.

Our Happy Limo driver arrived bright and early the next morning to whisk us off to Cocoa Beach. We left at 7:45 a.m. because we were meeting up with Shirley from the Perfect Gift to have breakfast while she filled us in about Key West. She is an old "conch," and a wealth of information. She even loaned us some books about the history of the island; it was all the more fascinating to know about the area's colorful past. I always enjoy visiting her shop, which is full of such wonderful, unique items. Whenever we want to send a gift basket to crew friends on the ship, we always get it through Shirley. She does the best custom work.

After breakfast, we were off to Port Canaveral to kick off our Western cruise. We enjoy arriving at the port because we've gotten to know many of the people there over the course of so many cruises, so it's like being greeted by friends. I was a bit surprised because we were early by "Wonder standards," but there were already good-sized lines at all of the check-in counters. Then hubby reminded me that on the Wonder, many of the people do a land and sea package, which means they don't have to check in at the port. On the Magic, everyone has to check in. But it's still so much more efficient than Royal Caribbean's system; for our Alaskan cruise, we had to take a number to check in, and we were then given ANOTHER number to board. Problem was, it was totally disorganized so half the time nobody knew which number they were even calling. With Disney, it's nice and simple. Pick a check-in line, and when you're done there, join the boarding queue. If you have little ones, one person can hold your place in line while the others explore the port (there are cartoons and Disney character appearances).

Embarkation started early, as usual (around 12:15), and soon we were through the security checkpoint and crossing the threshold from reality to fantasy. It was a little strange not to know most of the people in the receiving line, and the "same yet different" feel of the Magic as compared to the Wonder reminded me of being at Disneyland and comparing it to the Magic Kingdom--almost identical twins, but not quite.

Interestingly, the Magic seemed to be showing quite a bit more wear and tear than its little sister. That's probably to be expected, since it is older and I'm sure it's harder to do maintenance when the ship is only in Port Canaveral once a week vs. twice a week. I was wondering if a major overhaul would have to wait until the next dry docking, which is not happening until Sept. 2003, but over the course of the week, we heard that the staterooms are going to be rehabbed soon, in small groups. I should have known that Disney would never let its ships get too shabby! Hubby and I noticed that a decorative "WD" was missing from the end chair in one of the rows in the Walt Disney Theater...shortly after we returned home, we saw it turn up for auction on Ebay. How tacky is that?! It must be a constant challenge for Disney to keep items from "walking off," particularly now, with online auctions so popular and Disneyana items always in demand.

We made our way to Parrot Cay for lunch, which was different from the Wonder's (and actually a little better). My favorite was the cold fruit soup--mmmmm! Sort of like a delicious orange smoothie. Of course, hubby dug into the cold shrimp with a vengeance. He loves to embarrass me by taking an extra soup bowl and piling it up with shrimp.

After lunch, we headed off to our stateroom. I was very happy, as we were spending the week in my favorite room, 5650. In my opinion, there's none better (well okay, maybe the Walt and Roy suites). A large part of its appeal is its location in the far aft of the ship. You only have a neighbor on one side, and it's so far down the hall that people rarely pass by. That's important to me, particularly on a 7-day trip, because I find hallway traffic noise to be very disturbing. On this trip, it was like we were in our own little "cone of silence," which enabled us to go to bed early and/or sleep in with no disturbance. It was the perfect spot for our base of operations.

Another great thing about 5650 is the fact that the balcony is a little larger than usual. This allowed me to have a lounger so I could relax with a book or just lay out in the sun. The balcony comes standard with two regular chairs, so I requested the lounger and our stateroom host brought it just in time to enjoy for the first sea day. Ah, the simple pleasure of relaxing out in the sea air with a good book and not a care in the world. Our host also made towel animals each night, including two that we hadn't seen before (a rabbit and the cutest little bird).

The balcony rail is solid metal rather than clear plexiglass, but that doesn't bother me at all. Since it is aft, it is very close to the restaurants but more of a hike to the spa and adult pool, which are all the way forward (remember: forward = fun, aft = eat). I see this as a good thing, as it's a little enforced exercise to counteract some of that delicious and always available cruise cuisine. Another good thing is that it is not adjacent to a stateroom that sleeps four. Being adjacent to the staterooms with an extra bed increases your chances of being next to a larger (and potentially more noisy) family. If you have children yourself, that might not be an issue. If you are like me and value your peace and quiet, it's something to watch out for.

This was my first time in 5650 on the Magic, and the main difference that told me I wasn't on the Wonder was the artwork over the bed. On the Magic, it's a line of music from the song "Candle on the Water." On the Wonder, it's a drawing of the ship with little cutaway views of things going on inside (a couple dancing, a cook preparing dinner, a man reading on a lounger, etc.). We did have one little incident where part of the door handle fell off, but other than that, the Magic's 5650 was just as good as its Wonder counterpart.

I am hoping that someday they will auction one of the comforters at the onboard silent auction, as I would love to use it in my bedroom at home. Then I can hang our Captain Mickey sericell over the bed, stick a sign that says "5650" on the door and pretend that I'm onboard inbetween cruises. I don't think our condo association would take too kindly if I expanded the bedroom window into a verandah, tho'.

The Magic has three of the same shows as the Wonder: Hercules, Who Wants to Be a Mouseketeer, and Disney Dreams. It also has three of its own: Morty the Magnificent, the Welcome Aboard Variety Show, and the Farewell Variety Show. I know that only adds up to six…the seventh event in the Walt Disney Theater is a showing of the latest Disney movie.

I'll start off with the three familiar shows. First is Hercules, a live, corny-but-fun retelling of the Herc story. It's a Cliff Notes version, so it's best if you've seen the movie beforehand in order to fully understand the plot. I was really glad to see that Hades still does a few jokes before launching into his "Top Ten" list at the end of the show. He used to do a fairly long monologue, but that was recently cut out on the Wonder. On the Magic, it's not as long as it used to be, but it was still nice to see a bit of it. I thought that the current cast did an exceptionally good job with this show. Pain and Panic's antics had me laughing until my face hurt.

We didn't bother to see Mouseketeer, which we usually skip on the Wonder as well. It bears a strong resemblance to its namesake game show, down to the tedium while waiting for questions to be answered. Sometimes we go to try and get on the panel, but usually we don't bother. I'd rather have a production show or variety act in Mouseketeer's place and see it held as a daytime activity. The little kids seem to get bored with it quickly, and people often leave early. Those who stay get restless and usually start giving away the answers towards the end, so if you are a later contestant, your chance in win will probably be better if you listen carefully. Contestants are chosen randomly, based on your seat number, and panelists are chosen from volunteers at the beginning of the show (the panel takes the place of "Phone a Friend"). Hubby and I both know a lot of Disney trivia, but I must confess that my main interest in getting on the panel is to get a pin (they made great traders). I have never been chosen, but lucky hubby has been a panelist three times, and of course I have confiscated his pins.

We saw Disney Dreams for the 23rd time and enjoyed it as much as the first. We never get tired of that show, even though we probably know every line by heart now. While on the Conch Train in Key West, I overhead two people in one of the cars behind me doing some lines from the show. They must have been part of the main stage cast. I'm sure no one else realized what they were taking about, but I recognized the dialogue immediately. Disney Dreams is a great chance to see many of your favorite characters and hear some great Disney songs, My favorite sequences are "Aladdin" and "The Little Mermaid," and of course the part with Tinkerbell at the very end (I won't give details because I don't want to spoil it).

Out of the three shows that are exclusive to the Magic, two (the Welcome Board and the Farewell Variety Show) are quite similar. They feature singing, dancing, and performers who do things like juggling, singing, or ventriloquism. We had seen two of the performers previously, on our Eastern Caribbean trip. The first one, who did ventriloquism, wasn't good as a repeater, as his act was exactly the same. The second one, who did comedy/magic, was much more enjoyable because he had changed a lot of his act (and I had forgotten the climax of the part that was still the same). Since there are a lot of repeat cruisers who have taken the Eastern and are now trying the Western, I hope that Disney will alternate the entertainers and have some new people on the Western weeks or have the current performers do different acts

The best part of the Farewell Show was the little "recap" of numbers of all the previous shows. They had a bit of Herc, Morty the Magnificent, and several numbers from Disney Dreams. There was also footage on the video monitors. It must have been old because when they showed Scoops, it was back when they had real hand-scooped ice cream. Ahhh, that brought back some fond memories of our earliest cruises!

Morty is the latest reworking of C'est Magique. Personally, I preferred the old version, which was heavy on classical music, with almost no spoken words. But I think it was probably a little too esoteric for the typical family audience. This latest incarnation features a magician and his troupe who are seeking a contract to perform on the ship. The show revolves around their try-out, and there's more riding on the outcome than just a job. Morty the Magician has promised to marry his long-suffering girlfriend, Daphne, when they get a steady gig. But of course poor Morty has more of a talent for messing things up than he does for doing his act…at least, until Daphne enlists the aid of Sorcerer Mickey himself. In addition to the love-story plot line, there are traditional singing numbers interspersed throughout the magic tricks.

This show reminds me of what you'd get if you combined the old C'est Magique with Hercules and added a liberal touch of the Hoop De Doo Review. It was okay, but it's one that I'd possibly skip if something better came up. But I did enjoy the magic tricks and that fact there there is still artwork coming to life.

There were matinees of most of the production shows, which can be very handy if you'd like to free up some evening time. That doesn't always happen, but it seems to be something that Disney does when the ship is pretty much full. Be sure to check your Navigators to see if they do it on your cruise.

Interestingly, on this cruise they enforced the "no flash photography/no videotaping" rule during Disney Dreams. They didn't do this during any of the other shows, and this is the first time I've ever seen it enforced at all. There is a notice in the Navigator and a pre-recorded announcement before the show, but usually that's the extent of it. This time, members of the cruise staff actually went up to people who were taking flash photos during and asked them to refrain. Before the show, they even said something to hubby, as they saw he had his digital camera. Of course, he knows better than to use his flash. Instead, he sits up front and the photos always come out fine with no extra light. He took flashless pictures throughout most of the show, but towards the end they asked him to stop due to his view screen, which they said was distracting. That's probably a little excessive, but I would rather see over-enforcement than under-enforcement. It was particularly nice because the person behind us was taking flash photos, and it was annoying to be blinded every two minutes. She had to be asked twice, and she put up some argument, but she finally stopped. It will be interesting to see if this occurs on the Wonder, too, and if the policy is expanded to include the other shows.

There was so much to do on board that I don't think we even scratched the surface. For the daytime activities, we decided to concentrate on the "Behind the Scenes" and "Navigator Series" talks. "Behind the Scenes" offers a backstage peek at areas such as the theater and galley. There was also a chance to chat with some of the cast from the stage shows. For most of these events, you simply walk in with no tickets or reservations needed. However, for the galley tour, you need to pick up a timed ticket earlier in the day (the exact time and location will be listed in the Navigator). Then you return at your appointed time and are led through the Lumieres/Parrot Cay galley in small groups as your guide explains what you are seeing and talks about the challenges of preparing three meals a day (plus all those snacking opportunities) for 2700 guests and almost 1000 crew members.

The backstage theater presentation teaches you a little about lights, costuming, sound, etc., and then you get an opportunity to come up on stage. The stage was set for Hercules, so we had a change to see some of the set and props up close. It's fascinating to learn about what a technological marvel the Walt Disney Theater really is. Unlike Broadway, they do not have unlimited space, so they make they most of every available inch, and the theater spans several additional decks up and down.

The chat with the cast took place in Sessions. It was quite informal, with four performers telling the assembled group a little bit about their backgrounds and then answering our questions. It reminded me of the "meet the comedians" session they used to hold back when they had improv comedy on the ships. Most of the questions centered around the audition process, the length of the performer's contracts, and life aboard the ship. This is a fairly new cast, although there are several repeaters (I suspected that when I saw how well they did in Hercules). It only lasts half an hour, and the time seemed to fly by.

The Navigator Series offers some opportunities to chat with the senior officers (staff captain, engineer, HR manager, cruise director, etc.) and even the captain himself. These sessions were held in Rockin' Bar D, and they were great--very informative. I really enjoyed seeing the movie on the making of the Disney Magic that they showed in the beginning of the first presentation. Most of the questions seemed to center around things like how fast the ship moves, how much fuel it consumes, how it is navigated, how crew members are hired, and if there is really a brig on board for unruly guests. At the end of the second talk, they raffled off a navigational map that had actually been used on the bridge.

The Backstage and Navigator Series were both excellent. There were only two things that could be improved. Since the Navigator presentations are held in Rockin' Bar D, many people took the opportunity to light up cigarettes because it is a bar. That room has bad ventilation, and it made it uncomfortable for me. I think that during the day, any venue that is having a presentation should be declared "no smoking," just like in the theaters. Surely the smokers can hold off for half an hour. It wouldn't be so bad if there was better ventilation, but there really is no good place to sit in that club and not breathe it in.

Second, although the schedule said that the talks were for adults only, many people brought their children (including one baby who wailed throughout the entire second presentation). Disney is good about enforcing the adults only rules for other things, like the pool, spa, and beach. They should either enforce it for the talks or just declare them open to everyone. When people get away with bringing their children to one supposedly adults-only venue, this encourages them to try to break the rules in others (a couple of them tried it at the adult beach, but they didn't get away with it).

We didn't make it to the "Art of Entertaining" series, but that looking like it would be very enjoyable, too. There are topics on such activities as napkin folding and making appetizers and desserts. In addition, there are other activities such as an ice sculpting demonstration, pool games, and a family animation class. Be sure to check your Navigator each night to see what's going on the next day. Otherwise, you might miss something! It will be hard enough decided what to do anyway, but at least you'll never be bored.

There is also a 70's and an 80's party on the 7-day cruise. We never miss the 70's party on the Wonder, but we ended up skipping it on the Magic in favor of bedtime (hubby also suspects that I have a subconscious fear of dancing on that ship, since I popped off my knee cap at the 70's party in January 2001 and spend the rest of the cruise in a wheelchair). I know from past experience that the 70's party is a blast. The cruise staff always gets everyone up and dancing, and the appearances by Gloria Gaynor, John Travolta, and the Village People are not to be missed.

Happily, our dinner tablemate went to the 80's party and was able to describe it for us. At that party, the main stage cast joins cruise staff as hosts. They have a "Battle of the Bands" between the Go Go's and Bon Jovi (our tablemate and her friends played towel-clad Go Go's and lip synched their way to victory). If they ever offer this one on the Wonder, I will definitely be there--sounds like a fun time.

There were lots of family oriented activities as well. We skip most of those, since we don't have children, but I definitely had to drag hubby to "Sailor's Tales." That used to be offered as an adult activity, and on our last Magic trip there was a family and an adult version. On this trip, there was just the family version, held in Studio Sea. Three members of the cruise staff pose as funny characters (on this trip, it was a tourist, the 70's Disco Diva, and a secret agent). They are all given a strange word and come up with a definition for it. You must determine which one is telling the truth. Everybody gets to play (each table is a "team"), and medals are awarded to the winners.

There were four words, and the kids in the audience got a real kick out of the last one (I won't give it away, but let's just say that it bears a close resemblance to a word for a rude bodily noise). They must change the words every few months, as I didn't recognize the ones they used on this trip (of course, in the old days we used to do the adult version, where some of them were a bit more--uh, wild. I will never forget the definition of a "xyper" from the very first time we saw the show). Hubby and I got three out of four correct, which was enough for a victory.

We heard great things about the evening adults-only shows which were presented by the comedians and musicians who performed during the variety shows, but there just wasn't enough time to fit it all in and sleep, too. We definitely want to do another Western Caribbean early next year, as much for the activities as for the ports.

No cruise would be complete without lots of relaxation time spent in the Vista Spa. Our only challenge on this trip was to plan our treatments around the activities. It was difficult to judge, since this was only the second sailing of the Western itinerary so there were no past Navigators to judge by. We'd seen the Navigators from the previous trip, but changes had already been made.

Since we wanted to do a lot of the sea day activities, we scheduled most of our spa appointments late and did some on port days too. We never miss the surial bath, which is the ultimate couples experience. Last time on the Wonder, there was only one color of mud, but on the Magic there were all three so we were able to do some "body painting." I won't go into details since I have a separate trip report on the surial on the spa page on my website ( As always, it was a fun and romantic experience.

I also had my two favorites, the seaweed wrap/massage and the Ultimate Face & Body (a massage and facial combo), in addition to a couple of "regular" massages spaced throughout the week. Hubby matched me in number of appointments, but all his were for massages. He loves Steiner's Muscle Ease gel, so I know he would love the seaweed wrap, but he refuses to try it. He has promised to do it when we have our three Wonder cruises in a row in August/September, so we'll see. He stocked up on the gel, and I bought some of the wonderful-smelling fruit facial mask. The products are expensive, but well worth it--they are such a decadent pleasure! Of course, I spend a fortune in Bath and Body Works regularly anyway--I just love to pamper myself with toiletries.

As much as we enjoy the Rainforest, we never made it there. Because it was a new itinerary, there was just too much to do and too little time to do it. Oh well, we still squeezed in plenty of spa treatments. I don't even want to think about the final bill! (But it was well worth it--we work hard and we play hard. You should always pamper yourself, especially on vacation).

Cruises definitely deserve their reputation as a non-stop eating opportunity. We got by on two meals a day (either breakfast and dinner or lunch and dinner) just so we wouldn't come home ten pounds heavier. Like the Wonder, the Western Magic has rotation dining. For your first three nights, you rotate through the three restaurants and have their "regular" menu (i.e. each restaurant serves from a different menu on those nights).

On the other four nights, all three restaurants serve the same themed menu: Master Chef's, Captain's Gala (lobster tails--mmmm!), Mexicalifragilistic, and Small World. Master Chef's is a formal night, and the Captain's Gala is semi-formal. However, we saw a wide range of attire in the main dining rooms on those two nights, ranging from tuxedos to jeans, and even shorts. It seems to be pretty much "wear what you want." Hubby and I like dressing up, so we went the formal route. I'm glad we did, as we won the photo raffle, and the prize was two formal portraits. It was fun to pose in our fancy clothes in front of the portrait backdrops. By the way, the raffle is free--if you aren't given an entry form when you board, just stop by Shutters the first evening and request one. We were there purchasing our embarkation photo when I saw someone entering. I asked for a form, filled it out, tossed it in the box, and voila! We found out later than we won.

The food was much the same as on the Wonder, i.e. quite good. Hubby was pleased because when he ordered his beef or tuna medium rare, that's the way it was served (sometimes when you're eating in a large group situation, the food comes out well done no matter what you order). I generally skipped the main courses and ordered a selection of appetizers. Our server Jerveen was very helpful and took care of all my requests.

For those who prefer to eat when they choose, rather than on a schedule, or those who prefer a less formal option, there is a dinner buffet offered every day at Topsider's. There are also plenty of alternatives such as room service or the fast food outlets. Whenever I was hungry in between meals, I went up to Pluto's for chicken fingers or a taco and french fries, which I love to dip in the fabulous honey mustard sauce.

For lunch, there is a choice between a sit-down meal and a buffet at either Parrot Cay or Topsiders. The theme of the buffet changes daily (i.e. American, Oriental, etc.). I'm not really a buffet person, but I must say these are pretty good. The only item hubby was disappointed in was the sushi at the Parrot Cay seafood buffet, which wasn't "real" (it was vegetables and cooked salmon rather than the variety of raw fish that he likes). But he still rated the seafood buffet as his favorite of the trip, due to the already-peeled cold shrimp (you have to peel them yourself on the embarkation buffet) and the cold crab claws, as well as the seafood jambalaya. Personally, I loved the made-to-order stir fries on the Oriental buffet. We skipped the American buffet, but I know from our Wonder cruises how good it is.

We only did breakfast once (a sit-down meal in Lumiere's). The Eggs Benedict were as good as always, and I also had oatmeal with raisins. Hubby is a corned beef hash lover, so they rustled up a plateful for him.

Of course, we couldn't miss Palo. We went there on Key West night, right in time for the sunset, and our table was in a perfect location to view this gorgeous event. I couldn't believe how fast the sun sets there! I am used to a long, drawn-out sunset, but you could literally see it moving as it sunk below the horizon.

The food was delicious, although somewhat different than on the Wonder. I'm sure that the different chefs add their own touch with seasonings, presentation, etc., depending on their personal preferences. I had the portobello mushroom appetizer and the veal, which is my usual Palo meal. I also tried the ice wine--it was very pricey, at $16.75 a glass, but soooo good! It is a very sweet wine, made from the juice of frozen grapes. As always, both hubby and I had the chocolate souffle for dessert. I think I could eat that souffle every night and not get tired of it. It's truly a chocoholic's dream.

In addition, we did the Palo brunch and high tea. We didn't do either of those on our Eastern cruise, so this time we were determined not to miss them. The champagne brunch was one of hubby's favorite meals on board. It costs more than the dinner ($10 per person vs. $5, probably due to the champagne), but it is well worth the extra cost. There are lots of items served buffet style, and also breakfast and lunch entrees that you order from your server (if you still have any room). I had lots of goat cheese and quickly became addicted to the fresh-baked cinnamon roles. I had a breakfast entrée (Eggs Benedict, which you can get in one of three styles), while hubby opted for lunch.

But my favorite of all was the high tea. Prior to our trip, I had read comments from people who don't like tea served that way (strained tea leaves, as opposed to a tea bag), but I absolutely loved it. When I was little, my grandma used to serve chamomile tea that way. I haven't tasted it served like that in years, so it was a real treat to taste it once again on the ship. Hubby opted for a cinnamon tea that was so delicious--it definitely would have been my second choice.

You are served little sandwiches (cucumber & cream cheese, salmon & cream cheese, egg salad, and curried chicken), and scones with cream and two types of jellies. Mmmmmm! The scones were delicious, but I could easily have eaten the jelly with a spoon. Then comes a chocolate éclair, and the whole decadent experience is topped off with an English trifle. Unlike the other two meals, there is no extra charge for this one (but you'd better get your reservations ASAP because it is only offered once on each sea day, and the number of people is extremely limited). I noticed that one party left a tip in cash for their server, but we didn't have any with us so I brought up a phone card later (at the meals where there is a charge, there is a line on the receipt where you can write in an extra amount). Salvatore and Carita were the best servers!

The only improvement that could be made with dinner doesn't have to do with the food. For two of the ports, you move the clock back an hour, which means that when you are on the late seating, you are eating dinner an hour later than usual. That's not so bad for adults, but for the kids it's like eating at 9:30 rather than 8:30. On Royal Caribbean, they simply had everyone stay on ship's time rather than switch. I think that's a lot more convenient, particularly for families.

We are normally adventurous and like to explore on our own. However, since this was our first time at most of the ports (we had been to Cozumel once before, very briefly), we decided to book our excursions through Disney to ensure that everything would go as smoothly as possible. We wanted a minimum of hassle, and we also had spa appointments scheduled an hour or two after most of the trips, so we wanted to be reasonably certain of the timing. We love the fact that Disney allows shore excursions to be booked in advance now, and we took advantage of this service. The only difficult part was finalizing what we wanted to do before I called.

Actually, I ended up on my own in Key West, as my excursion (the beach break) was cancelled and is no longer offered. This is a good example of how fast Disney responds to guest comments. It was only offered once, on the 5/11 Western, and they dropped it immediately due to guest complaints. I guess I shouldn't be surprised, as we heard from many people that Key West beaches are not really all that great.

Hubby did the sailing/snorkeling excursion through Disney, and although he enjoyed it, he said that the amount of sea life was only marginally better than what we typically see at Castaway Cay. For me, I wandered off the boat, certain that I would find plenty to do, and I was not mistaken. First, I discovered the semi-sub, so I hopped onto that. It was enjoyable--not as many varieties of fish as I would have expected, but I really liked seeing the nurse shark, barracuda, and sea turtle. Next, while walking down the street, I discovered the Conch Train station. I definitely wanted to see the highlights of the island, and that seemed to be the best way. Unfortunately, the tour is 90 minutes long, and I only had 60 till I needed to head back to the ship so I would be on time for a spa appointment.

No problem! The ticket agent told me that the train does a rest stop after 60 minutes, only a block away from the starting point. I could just hop off there and head back early. As much as I hated to miss part of the tour, 2/3rds seemed better than none. I really enjoyed it. I learned a lot about the history and architecture of Key West, and got to see Ernest Hemmingway's house, among many other points of interest (I had been hoping to have enough time to go there and see the multi-toed cats). Our driver was a wealth of information, giving us a non-stop commentary on history and architecture. I especially enjoyed learning why Key West is known as the Conch Republic--I never realized there was a story behind that. My only big regret was that I never made it to Mallory Square, and I had really wanted to see the man with the performing cats, but I will definitely do that when we return. I also want to do the kayaking excursion--I didn't book it because I am leery of deep water, but others who took it told me that the water is only three feet deep.

I returned to the ship expecting to find hubby already there, but he was nowhere in sight. With spa appointments looming at 5 p.m. and the clock inching past 4:30, I got my binoculars and went out on the balcony. At the dock in town, I could see a sailboat with hubby disembarking. He spotted me (easy to do, since 5650 is right in back of the ship) and hollered out a greeting. His excursion had gotten back quite late, but we still did make it to the spa on time.

From what I could see, in Key West you could easily book many of your own excursions once you get ashore. Even if you have absolutely no idea what you want to do, you will definitely find something! It's such an absolutely neat and lively place.

For Grand Cayman, you must be tendered (i.e. the ship docks out in the ocean, and you have to take a little boat to the island). To make the process run as smoothly as possible, Disney has the passengers pick up tender tickets with characters on them. When your character is called, you proceed to the tender boat to go ashore. If you are on an early shore excursion, you don't need to get a ticket as you will meet in one of the clubs and tender shore with the tour group.

At this port, both hubby and I were booked for the semi-sub and then an island tour and swimming with the stingrays via Disney (you can also book these on your own when you go ashore--we saw the vendors by the dock). First was the semi-sub, and after seeing the variety of fish, I was truly overwhelmed. So much more than in Key West! The semi-subs are nicer than glass bottomed boats because everyone has their own window, with no rotating. A diver jumped in from the boat to feed the fish, and they absolutely swarmed him. It was a perfect photo opportunity. This excursion is offered at two different times--we did the earlier time, and it was great because the boat was not at all crowded.

Since there was only an hour till our next excursion, we stayed shore and walked around. Unlike Nassau, the vendors do not rush you in Grand Cayman. We were told that it is a much wealthier island, and that was very apparent. However, we had also been warned not to shop on the island because the prices are comparatively much higher than you can find elsewhere. I stopped briefly in an internet café which offered online time for 25 cents a minute vs. 75 cents on the ship. Usually I make it a point not to log on while we're on vacation, but I couldn't resist letting everyone on DIS ( know what a great time we were having.

There were a lot of little dive shops along the shore where you could rent snorkeling gear and hit the ocean. It looked very refreshing (the day was hot and the water was cool), but we had to hustle back for our island tour and stingray snorkeling experience.

The pavilion area where you meet for the excursions was a madhouse, as several seemed to be leaving at one time. Hopefully things will get more organized once Disney has been doing this itinerary for a while. Eventually things got sorted out and we were broken down into small groups and headed off in several vans. The two main stops on the island tour were the turtle farm, where you can hold a baby turtle for photo opportunities (and where you can buy the most delicious beef patties and rum cake) and Hell, a rock formation that looks exactly like its namesake. There is a post office where you can send postcards from Hell, and of course lots of t-shirts with witty sayings (my favorite was "I'd rather go to Hell than go to work."

Then it was on to the dock, where we boarded our vessel to head out to Stingray City. This was truly the highlight of the trip! The stingrays are not captive in any way. Our boat captain told us that they started coming to the area many years ago, when fishermen would clean their catch there and toss the scraps overboard. Then someone had the bright idea of bringing tourists. The stingrays quickly learned that people are basically two-legged feeding machines, and now they are as tame as puppies.

We docked at the sandbar and climbed down into the waist-deep water. We had all been equipped with snorkel masks, and the captain passed out octopus, which is apparently a big treat for the rays. Soon they were all around us, brushing our legs and bumping into us to ask for food. They even allow themselves to be picked up for photos. There were a lot of other boats in the area, but it didn't seem crowded as each group of people stayed in their own area and there were plenty of stingrays to go around. They seem to know that when a new boat comes in, it means that more food has arrived.

When we were done, we were hosed down with fresh water and enjoyed a beverage as we headed back to shore. The only worry was that once again hubby and I had spa appointments booked, and although we had allowed well over an hour past the stated end time of the excursion, we were running late once again. Happily, we made it back in the nick of time because we didn't have to wait for a tender…there were two boats at the pier, so we got right onto one of them. Disney has done a really nice job, shading the waiting area with big canopies and offering free cold water and fruit punch while you wait. There is even a big "Welcome Back" sign when you return to the ship.

We had been to Cozumel before on Voyager of the Seas, but on that trip we had simply passed through on our way to Xcaret. Disney also offers Xcaret as an excursion, and I was very tempted to do it again. It is hard to describe, but it is an ecological park with so much to see and do. There is a butterfly garden, nature trails, ruins, dolphins, pumas, horses, beaches, and natural lazy rivers that wind in underground caves (those are my favorite). But hubby talked me into trying something new, and as much as I would have loved going back to Xcaret, I have to admit that I had a great time,

Initially, I was lobbying for the horseback tour of the ruins, but we own horses so he held out for a completely different experience. We settled on the Jeep Tour, and it was great! The tour group divides up into groups of four, and you all hop into your vehicles to drive as a caravan through town and out to the off-road area by the beach. On the way, you stop at the Pee Pee Station (yes, that's what it's really called) to hit the facilities and buy any supplies you might need. Then you're off for the ride of your life, through rugged four-wheeling terrain that makes you feeling like you're on the Dinosaur ride at Disney World times 10!

Hubby's only disappointment was that he couldn't take a turn at driving because he can't drive a manual transmission (myself, I was perfectly happy being a passenger). We had read that on the May 11th cruise, the vehicles were Geo Metros with automatic transmissions. But on this one, they were all manual Jeeps, so we spent our time hanging on for dear life in the back and whooping & hollering as we bounced along the rocky and sandy roads with the ocean off to our right in the ultimate off-road experience.

We stopped at a ruin for photos and a history lesson from our guides (they were both fluent in English and were a lot of fun). Then it was back to our vehicles and off to the beach for a dip and a delicious lunch. There are canopies and blankets set up for everyone, and the waves happened to be quite high that day, so everyone was out body surfing and having a blast. The water felt so good and cool! I think I must have drank a gallon of salt water, as the waves kept crashing into me and giving me a mouthful or knocking me over. It was like Typhoon Lagoon on steroids. I felt sorry for the people who hadn't realized we were going to the beach and who therefore hadn't brought their swimsuits, as our time in the water was a real highlight. There are no changing facilities at the beach, so the bst bet is to wear your swimsuit under your clothes.

There was also a delicious Mexican lunch waiting for us: beef and chicken tacos, along with fresh fruit and cold drinks. The salsa and guacamole were soooo good (neither hubby nor I had the guts to try the hot salsa--we just stuck with the mild).

All too soon it was time to head back, over the same rugged terrain. There was one more stop at the Pee Pee Station and then we were back in town. On the way, we passed countless people on just about every variety of motorcycle or moped you can imagine, as well as an endless variety of Volkswagens. Those appear to be the two most popular forms of transportation on the island. Personally, I thought that driving on the city streets was more of a challenge than the off-roading. Interestingly, red lights seemed to mean "pause and then proceed" rather than "stop."

Once again, we were running late (although not as much this time). After all the bumps and jolts, we were both ready for a massage! But it was such a great trip--this excursion and the snorkeling with stingrays are neck and neck for my favorite.

Prior to the excursion, we did some walking around in town. The dock area is so nice and clean, and although there are plenty of vendors, they are not nearly as aggressive as the ones in Nassau. I was looking for some sunglasses, and I've never seen so many Oakley knock-offs in my life! I ended up buying a couple of pairs at the Pee Pee Station while on our excursion (made necessary by the fact that hubby broke his while exiting the jeep--he blames me for rushing him out, but I needed to use the facilities!). We also saw horse-drawn carriages, which I would have liked to do, but we had gotten off the ship pretty early and there weren't many around yet. When we returned from our excursion, there were a lot waiting at the curb, but we didn't have time. We did, however, try the rickshaws. You hop on and the driver pedals you to (or from) the ship on the bicycle-like contraption. They work for tips of a few dollars, and it's great fun to see how they manage to drive around the crowds.

The only suggestion I would have for the excursions is that Disney should make the listed lengths more accurate. We returned late on almost all of them (on one, almost two hours late). I wouldn't mind except for the fact that we had made plans for afterwards, and the spa charges you a fee if you are a no-show. Fortunately we made it on time for all of our appointments, but we spent some nervous time wondering if we would! But we don't regret a minute that we spent doing things in the port--the excursions were great, particularly the stingrays and the jeeps.

Rain was threatening when we arrived in port, but once again hubby and I were a good-luck charm and it blew over to reveal the sun and give us our 22nd straight gorgeous day on Castaway Cay. All ashore was around 9 a.m., but sleepyhead hubby was just barely stirring. I grabbed our stuff and instructed him to meet me on the adult beach, as I wanted to get a hammock and you need to get off early for that. We had our two-way radios with us, but we didn't use them because it's relatively easy to find someone on the adult beach. If I had been staying at the family beach, I definitely would have brought a radio as it is much larger.

There is so much to do on Castaway Cay. On some trips we hang out at the adult beach, while on others we stay at the family beach, and we've worked our way through all the activities, such as kayaking, snorkeling, massages, the banana boat, and parasailing. On this trip, we decided to be lazy and spend most of our time at Serenity Bay. I was early enough to get a hammock, so I set up "base camp" and headed off into the water. Unfortunately, I had forgotten my snorkel mask, so I just swam around and tried to view the sea life as best as I could from the surface, There were lots of sea slugs and even a little ink-squirting octopus! That's the first time I've seen one of those up close and personal. I varied my swimming with reading in the hammock, and eventually hubby arrived a little before lunchtime (rather than take the trams, he had chosen the insane option of walking).

We ate lunch at the adult beach and were pleasantly surprised to find grilled lobster tails! You don't get those on the Wonder--we thought they might be leftovers from the Magic's inaugural Western trip, but we were told they have them all the time. Hubby came up with a good theory--Castaway Cay day is the day after the Captain's Gala dinner, which as lobster as the main course. He surmised that they simply cook up the excess lobster on the island the next day. Those tails were soooo good! I will miss them when we sail on the Wonder in July.

After we ate, hubby headed off to the snorkel area, while I stayed behind to do my snorkeling at the adult beach. There was quite a bit of sealife around for me to observe. The neatest was a little stingray that kept buzzing the beach, with a fish buddy keeping pace above him.

In addition to snorkeling in the main area, hubby spent some time at Castaway Joe's game area, which has expanded since our last trip. People seem to be discovering it now, as there were some families around (in the past, it's been pretty much deserted). It's a neat place and one of those best-kept secrets, like the deck 7 aft verandah, that more people should discover. All too soon the day was over and we met up back at the ship. I don't think I can ever get tired of Castaway Cay, even if I go there a hundred times. It is truly an island paradise!

We never miss the Castaway Club party, since we consider ourselves the Platinum members. We are used to the Wonder, where's it's typically a relatively small affair, held in the Cadillac Lounge. On the Wonder, it's quite informal, and it's a great chance to chat with the captain and other ship's officers.

On the Magic, it is typically much larger, and this time we broke the record!! All of Beat Street was taken over for the gala event, and the officers stood in a receiving line to welcome the guests. There were gorgeous ice sculptures and music in all of the clubs. We chose Sessions, as a number of DISers were getting together there. It was great fun to meet them, and we all got together for a photo with Captain Henry at the end. The parties on each of the ships are a very different experience, but each is enjoyable in its own way. As Disney gets more and more repeat cruisers, I think that the Wonder's party will become more like the Magic's.

Since we have no children but are always sailing Disney, people often question our sanity. The Disney name conjures up visions of hundreds of kids running amok and getting underfoot. But the reality is that Disney does a great job of keeping them busy and of giving the adults their own areas where they can escape for some peace and quiet.

The Wonder is very good about enforcing the adult areas, and I was interested to see how the Magic would measure up. We never saw any kids in the adult pool (although I like the fact that the Wonder has its "Adults Only" sign positioned in a very prominent area, where you cannot miss it…the Magic's is much less obvious). People brought children to the adult beach a couple of times but were politely asked to leave. I find it interesting that I've never seen a child sneak onto that beach alone. There is always an adult with them. Several trips ago, we observed a husband and wife dragging the kids along. The wife said, "Wait, this is the adults only beach. See the sign?" and the husband said sarcastically, "Who cares? I can't read." I guess that some people think the rules don't apply to them, and I'm glad that Disney takes enforcement seriously to ensure that their adult guests have a great experience.

As I mentioned earlier, the one place where enforcement was lacking was in the supposedly "adult programming." There were kids at every one of the presentations and none were ever turned away. It was the same way on our Eastern cruise a year and a half ago. During one of the Navigators Series talks, there was a baby that whined incessantly, which was quite distracting. I think that the adults only rule should be enforced, or else Disney should just open up the series to everyone (these events have an "adults only" notation in the navigator). Otherwise, when people flaunt the rules in one place, I think they are more likely to try it elsewhere (the people trying to bring their kids to the adult beach were probably some of the same ones who took them to the talks).

But overall Disney was the great adult experience that I've come to expect. Interestingly, although it was a holiday week and there were LOTS of kids on board, they never seemed to be really underfoot, even on sea days. I suppose that if you absolutely can't stand kids, you might not like it because they will definitely be around. But if you are used to Disney World, the ship won't phase you at all. Personally, I get a real kick out of watching them.

While we were dining in Palo, there was a little girl on the outside deck with her mother. Mom was watching the sunset, but the little one wasn't interested. She came over to the window, shaded her eyes, and peeked inside, right at our table. I couldn't resist the opportunity, so I made a silly face at her. She was shocked! I think she thought it was her imagination--an older woman in formal clothes sticking out her tongue! She took a few steps back, then worked up her courage and tried again. This time, I made an even sillier face--I thought she would make one back, but she was still so surprised that she backed off again. She tried a third time, and this time I did a REALLY crazy face, with one hand on my nose and my thumb in my ear, and she gave off and ran to mom (I can just imagine the conversation: "Mom, mom, there's a crazy lady in that restaurant!"). It was all I could do to keep from cracking up, but of course that wouldn't have been very polite in Palo.

We saw lots of youngsters at dinner time because we were on the kids rotation (don't worry, if you are childless you will typically dine with mostly other adults. By starting on the kids rotation, we were in Parrot Cay on Key West night--that is the restaurant that hubby likes to skip for Palo, and it put us there on the perfect day to watch the sunset). We had a little boy at our table who loved to regale us with tales of his experiences. My favorite was his story of how a conch squirted him in Key West. He told us all about the traumatic experience with so much drama that I could barely keep a straight face. The overall volume of the kids dining rotation is somewhat higher, but you are surrounded by all sorts of amusing happenings. There was one little toddler at a nearby table that hubby and I dubbed "The Escape Artist." Each night he made a valiant effort to wiggle his way out of his seat and escape for parts unknown. One day he nearly made it, but he was very tired (we were on late seating and the time change made it even later). He made it a quarter of the way across the dining room, then wobbled and appeared ready to fall asleep on his feet. Whoosh! An adult swooped in and aborted the escape attempt.

The servers did a great job of keeping the little ones entertained, doing tricks with napkins and even making paper airplanes. The biggest ruckus was the last night, at the Small World dinner, when we were encouraged to make as much noise as possible for our servers. The shouting, banging, and general volume level raised tenfold! I was driving poor hubby crazy by "playing" the water glasses with a spoon and banging them on the table. Where else can you just let go and release your inner child without looking totally crazy?

But as I mentioned earlier, if you are a childless adult who prefers a more relaxed setting, don't worry because you will probably be on a rotation with a much lower kid population. Disney does a great job with the dining. They typically start off the adults in Lumiere's (or Triton's on the Wonder), the families with little kids in Animators, and those with older kids in Parrot Cay. Of course, this varies with the number of kids on board for any particular cruise (a couple of times on holidays, where there is a huge number of kids on board, we've had a child at our table even on the adult rotation), but overall your chances are good of being seated with a similar party.

One frequently-asked question is: "How formal are the formal nights?" We've been sailing on Disney since 1998, and over time the dress has gotten steadily less formal. On our last Wonder trip, we even saw someone wearing blue jeans in Palo. Of course, there is no ship-wide formal night on the Wonder, while the Magic has both a formal and semi-formal night.

Hubby and I don't dress up much back home, so we enjoy getting dudded up on the ship. Also, as I mentioned earlier, we won the photo raffle so we got two free formal portraits--that made me quite glad that we had packed our formal wear. But overall we saw quite a few people who were dressed down, even on the formal nights. The Magic offers a dinner option at Topsiders for those who don't want to dress up, but it seemed to me that most people just dressed as they pleased and went to the main dining room anyway. Clothing ranged from tuxes to jeans and even shorts. It seems to be "do whatever you are comfortable with."

I had thought that this was because the "Disney" name makes many people think of "casual," but the same was true on our Alaskan cruise on Radiance of the Seas. Voyager of the Seas was more formal, but Radiance had a much higher kid/family population. Perhaps that's why they, like Disney, had many more people opting for casual-dress.

Three-day cruises go by too fast, but even a week seemed to simply fly by. As much as I love Castaway Cay, it also depressed me because it means that the trip is almost over. Hubby usually carries our luggage with him rather than leave it out to be delivered to the port for us, but on this trip there were just too many bags. The zipper had torn out of one of our brand-new luggage bags, but our stateroom host brought some duct tape so hubby could seal it up for the trip home.

Usually there is no line to disembark, but this time there was a bit of a wait. It may be because we skipped breakfast and opted to leave a little early. But the line wasn't bad at all; it was nothing compared to the Royal Caribbean method of assigned people a color and making them wait forever for it to be called. We found our bags quickly (they are festooned with bright stripes and hair ribbons, and they were all sitting together) and were soon headed to Customs, which had no line at all.

One great convenience is that you no longer have to fill out a customs form unless you have exceeded the limit. Otherwise, you can breeze right through. Oddly enough, although the towncars can drop you off right at the terminal, they have to pick you up in the parking lot across the street. Hubby and I headed over to meet up with our towncar, and soon we were waving goodbye to the Magic and a magical vacation.

On the way home, ATA was offering headsets for the video entertainment for $1. For that price, you are allowed to keep it and use it on future flights. I liked that--previously, they used to cost $2.50, and you had to get them back. Since we are booked on ATA for all but one of our upcoming trips, I invested the dollar.

We are already planning to rebook another Western cruise in January of 2003. We visited with the onboard sales rep., but the price is the same whether you book onboard or not. The only difference is a stateroom credit for booking on board. I miss the old system, which gave you a stateroom credit for rebooking within a certain timeframe, regardless of where you booked. We held off because the staterooms we wanted weren't available, but we'll probably book onboard on our July trip, when we return "home" to the Wonder.

I was very excited when Disney announced its Western itinerary, and I must say that this trip met and exceeded my expectations. There are still a few minor bugs to be worked out, but the changes started right after the first sailing, so I am confident that Disney will continue to refine and improve things. I heartily recommend this trip, and I can't wait to do it again.

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