Sunday, December 22, 2002

Travel Feature: "Cruisin' With Disney"

Greensboro News & Record (NC)-December 22, 2002
Author/Byline: JANET BRINDLE REDDICK Staff Writer
Edition: ALL
Page: I2

        The only thing better than drinking a frozen pina colada on a white sandy beach while staring out at sparkling topaz water is sharing the adventure with your loved one.

        Or Mickey Mouse.

        You may not think of Walt Disney's main mouse as a romantic guy. After all, he and Minnie have been an item for nearly 75 years, and still she's without an engagement ring, a wedding or little mice.

        But the big cheese is making up for it by giving Minnie a continuous honeymoon. And on every voyage, he invites 2,400 of his closest friends.

        My husband Jay and I were lucky enough to be on a three-night cruise on the Disney Wonder in early December - just about the time Greensboro's first winter ice storm paralyzed the city.

        We felt just a little guilty dipping our toes into the warm waters of the Bahamas, in a string of islands known as the Abacos, while friends and family back in Greensboro were suffering without power after the ice storm. Thankfully, the Bahamian rum in our frozen concoctions was able to soothe our concerns.

        The thermometer said it was 80 degrees. The calendar said it was nearly Christmas. For Christmastime sailings, the crew goes overboard with holiday cheer. The four-story grand entryway was decked to the decks with holly, garland, red bows and Christmas trees. It seemed like every last public space in the 964-foot vessel had a holiday surprise.

        A 1,200-brick gingerbread house was displayed on the promenade deck: the largest one afloat, they said.

        Yuletide character greetings were plentiful, too. I met Mickey and Minnie in their beach clothes, and in red-and-green formal wear. Christmas Goofy and Chip and Dale were guests. And, of course, the Disney Princesses were available for photos. But none of the characters were jumping out at you around corners. They were accessible to those that wanted to see them, but you don't have to be a fan of the cartoons to enjoy the trip.

        You just have to be a fan of architecture, craftsmanship and classic beauty.

        Joe and Elizabeth Eades from St. Louis were thrilled when they boarded the 83,000-ton floating city for their first cruise.

        A floating Wonder

        ``We walked on the ship and just gasped,'' Elizabeth Eades said of the ship, both inside and out.

        Mike Orszula, who came from Chicago with his wife Lenore, agreed that the ship was a renaissance boat. He said when the Wonder docked, passengers on other ships experienced ``boat envy.''

        ``They were just staring at our boat,'' Orszula said. The couple was taking a three day cruise before a stay at Walt Disney World in Orlando. They both said they'd definitely cruise again.

        They aren't alone. According to the Cruise Lines International Association, more than 2 million North American vacationers cruised between July and September of this year. The nonprofit group representing 24 cruise lines says this is a record-setting pace for the year.

        There were plenty of people on our voyage, and the one thing we liked the most about the design of the ship was the separate areas for different ages. The children's areas were truly for kids, family areas could be enjoyed by everyone and adult areas were off limits to those under 18.

        ``The staff worked really hard to please them all,'' he said. ``The kids had so much to do.''

        Pleasing the adults was easy, too. Jay and I spent a lovely afternoon in the spa, having a mud and sauna treatment. We lost at bingo. I beat him at ping-pong. We sang along with the dueling piano players. And though we missed some of the shows and activities - you simply can't do everything - all of the performances we did see were great.

        ``The entertainment was fantastic,'' Lenore Orszula said after seeing the finale production in the grand Walt Disney Theatre called ``Disney Dreams.''

        The story is about a young girl who learns the power of her dreams. It features many favorite Disney characters and is filled with special effects and talented singers and dancers.

        ``They really put on a first-class show,'' she said.

        It wasn't just the entertainment staff that was working hard, either. All of the cabin stewards, deck staff and kitchen crew were busy keeping the ship spotless - which was good, considering the recent spate of Norwalk-like viruses on cruise ships. Some of our friends were worried that we might become ill with the contagious stomach flu. We didn't. As far as we know, no one on our sailing had any problems either.

        Our room steward, Wemfi Salbini, came to our room to clean in the morning, and to turn down our bed in the evening. The Indonesia native even left chocolates on the pillow each night, and created fun animal sculptures out of towels. The outside room with no veranda was much larger than others I've traveled in, and each cabin has 1.5 baths.

        In public areas, tables were constantly wiped down. Gloved crew members served passengers from buffets to cut down on hand-to-hand contact between guests.

        Dinner in Technicolor

        ``That was another thing that really surprised me, was how clean it was,'' Joe Eades said.

        And that was good news for those of us who wanted to enjoy all of the cuisine on board.

        The Eadeses and the Orszulas were our tablemates, but each night we were in a different dining room. Our servers, Michael Barrozo and Jeff Critchley, followed us to each themed room, and the menu and the decor changes make for interesting meals.

        And we all tried something new. My husband and Lenore Orszula both tried escargot for the first time. They both thought it was OK, but they wouldn't go back for it.

        We all raved about the butternut squash soup in Animator's Palate - of course it didn't hurt that there was a show going on around us as the black and white animated characters on the walls slowly changed into color versions throughout the meal. Even the servers changed from black and white vests to technicolor versions during dessert.

        Then there was the flavorful salt-encrusted sea bass at Triton's. The Little Mermaid might think it was a little fishy to eat her buddies, but she would be thrilled that her dad was offering the world's best creme brulee for dessert.

        Our favorite was the chocolate souffle in the adults-only restaurant Palo. The intimate Italian restaurant requires a special reservation and there's a $5 extra charge to cover the tip for the servers. Palo is not one of the restaurants in the normal rotation.

        An oasis of relaxation

        Each night as we ate, we got to discuss the wonders we had discovered in port and onboard as well. My favorite part was Disney's private island, Castaway Cay, which was simply an oasis of sand and relaxation.

        Though it was a little rainy the morning we visited, the clouds eventually made way for the sun. The 1,000-acre island has a family beach, a teen beach and an adults-only beach. The sandy bottom of the ocean at the adults area called Serenity Bay is a little rockier than the family beach, but is also much quieter.

        The natural beauty of the island has been preserved, just as Walt Disney might have liked. He once said, ``I don't like formal gardens. I like wild nature. It's just the wilderness instinct in me, I guess.''

        To keep with that thought, cruise line officials say less than 10 percent of the 3.1-mile-long has been developed.

        Though we enjoyed just floating in the ocean on blue mats and tubes, the Eadeses were a little more adventurous: they enjoyed a ride on the back of a banana boat. It's a giant, yellow floating cylinder that you straddle like a horse. It is pulled by a fast speed boat.

        ``We had a blast,'' Joe Eades said.

        And that sentiment pretty well sums up our time on the ship. As we left our giant stateroom Sunday morning at 7 a.m., we wished we could be stowaways for another few days.

        Hey, Mickey: See ya real soon!

        Contact Janet Brindle Reddick at 373-7005 or