Disney cruise captures the wonder of Alaska
Images of Disney Cruise Line's activities during its Alaska and Pacific Northwest itineraries. (Disney Cruise Line)
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My first shiver came our first day at sea, when our ship glided between two large mountains, waterfalls flowing down them, bald eagles sweeping by, as my giggling kids slid down the giant slide in Mickey's pool. Sure, it was about 55 degrees out, but the water was a warm 88.
The next time I got that tingly feeling was a couple of hours later, as my favorite Disney character, Belle, danced past, blowing a kiss to my 6-year-old son. But the real beauty of this trip is the scenery. Alaska is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. So during all those goose-bump worthy moments, and every moment in between, I took in the sights of this dream vacation.
This summer marks the first time the mouse has ventured to Alaska. With the introduction of the Disney Dream, the Disney Wonder was able to move full time to the West Coast. Until September, the ship will be sailing on seven-night cruises from Vancouver, Canada, through a fjord along the Inside Passage known as Tracy Arm, and onto Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan, Alaska.
WHILE WE DEVOTIN', FULL TIME TO FLOATIN'
Several people had told me that you go on an Alaskan cruise not for the cruise but to see the sights. Those people obviously weren't on a Disney ship. After going on this cruise, I can't imagine ever going on any other kind with kids. In fact, Conde Nast Traveler recently named Disney the No. 1 cruise line in the megaship category, and the best crew and staff award went to the Disney Wonder. It's not hard to understand why so many large family groups, from grandparents to teens to infants, choose Disney.
I tell jokes, I do tricks with my fellow candlesticks — When is the last time you sat down to a four-course dinner with kids and enjoyed it? Yes, with that kind of wine. Here, you do it every night. Disney has a rotational dining system in which you change restaurants every night but your waiter and assistant waiter come with you. Trust me, you get attached to them pretty quickly. A soon as you sit at your table, your kids have a cup of water with their name on the lid. To say the waiters are good with kids is an understatement. They do magic tricks, tell jokes and even cut up your kids' food. They must have taken a few lessons from Lumiere himself.
And the food is better than expected, from the creamy asparagus soup at Parrot Cay to the pasta loaded with seafood at Triton's. Even food at the buffet, where we had prosciutto sandwiches and baked salmon for lunch, was more upscale than expected. There's room service at midnight if you want it. (And yes, there is a gym on board to work it all off; not saying I used it, just saying it's there.)
One night, we dined at Palo, the adults-only Italian restaurant on deck 10. It was one of the most amazing meals I've ever had. Starting with first-class service and an antipasti cart, continuing with lobster ravioli topped with truffle oil, and ending with a perfectly cooked chocolate souffle with gelato, it was worth every cent of the $20-per-person surcharge.
You've got a friend in me — Disney is all about kids, and the ship has a kids club for all ages: a nursery, an area for younger kids called the Oceaneer Club, an Oceaneer Lab for slightly older kids (my 4- and 6-year-olds enjoyed both the club and the lab), a tween club and a teen club.
The clubs are more than playlands with toys, TVs and video games. Each level has planned activities. My kids created flubber with a scientist, made chocolate chip cookies in Ratatouille cooking school and competed in a MarioKart tournament. They made a few friends along the way, too.
Meanwhile, mom and dad get time to visit some of the adult-only areas on the ship, which include a few lounges, a spa and a pool. There are three pools on board: one for adults, the main pool with a giant movie screen showing, you guessed it, Disney movies, and a kids pool with a slide. I loved that the kids pool was just a couple of feet deep, so the kids could play all they wanted without me having to get in.
There's more to be seen than can ever be seen — The entertainment on a Disney ship can't be beat. The nightly shows include musicals full of Disney characters and songs. One night, an ambitious cruise-ship-only musical version of "Toy Story" delighted the kids. You can also see first-run Disney movies. We saw "Cars 2" in 3D the day it came out at movie theaters. We also saw the new "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides." There's something surreal about watching a movie about ships as you sway with the ocean tides on yours.
There are cooking classes, animator classes, craft classes, bingo, music acts, magic acts and more every day and night. The last night of the cruise is a most remarkable show called "Disney Dreams: An Enchanted Classic," which features favorite songs and characters from "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin," "The Little Mermaid," "Lion King" and more, all woven into a story line about making your dreams come true. Get there early because the theater fills up fast for this one.
When you wish upon a star — "Celebrities" are everywhere aboard the ship. Sure, you'll find Mickey, Minnie and the gang (everyone gets a character breakfast where each one comes to your table to sign autographs, shake hands and pose for pictures), but you'll also see several princesses, Kenai and Koda from "Brother Bear," Peter Pan and even Capt. Jack Sparrow. Most of them show up during scheduled meet-and-greets, but sometimes the characters surprise you, walking along the halls, out by the pool and even on one of our port adventures.
Be our guest, be our guest, put our service to the test "'' We were in a stateroom with a verandah that sleeps three or four people. At 268 square feet, it's bigger than most other cruise ship rooms. The room, which is like most on the ship, divides in two. At night, the sitting area turns into a bunk-bed sleeping area for the kids. And though it seems to transform magically, a gracious stateroom hostess makes up your room morning and night. Disney also has a wonderful creation in a split bathroom, with a shower and sink in one section and a toilet and sink in another, so two people can get ready at the same time.
A WHOLE NEW WORLD, SHINING, SHIMMERING, SPLENDID
Tracy Arm — I've seen plenty of photos of Alaska's mountains, but nothing prepares you for the 360-degree beauty that is Tracy Arm. I was in the spa when we entered the fjord. I came out, climbed the stairs to the top deck where my husband and kids were waiting, and the view took my breath away. We cruised through the misty fjord for several hours, as giant mountains with waterfalls rose around us and icebergs floated below. We saw a few seals and bald eagles en route to the crown jewel: Sawyer Glacier, with its brilliant blue ice. The cruise ship is able to park in front of it for nearly an hour, making for great photos. All the while, a naturalist is on the overhead speaker, so you know the history and science of what you are seeing.
Skagway — For our stop in Skagway, we chose the Liarsville Gold Rush Trail Camp and Salmon Bake featuring Disney characters. We boarded a bus that took us through the small touristy town of Skagway, where shops, particularly jewelry shops, line the main drag. On the day we were there, so were two other ships. That's about 6,000 extra people in this town with a year-round population of about 800. The bus took us to a wooded encampment, which became known as Liarsville when the dirty rotten journalists who came during the Klondike gold rush in the late 1800s lied about the ease of getting gold. The activities at Liarsville included viewing a mock encampment, a puppet show, panning for gold (yes, we took home a few flecks), getting photos taken with Donald in front of a gorgeous waterfall and roasting marshmallows with Mickey. Our 10:30 a.m. salmon bake included expertly grilled salmon, yummy mac and cheese, salads, beans, corn bread and more. ($89 adults; $49 kids)
Juneau — Juneau, the state capital, was the largest town we visited. It has a population of about 30,000, smaller than Cape Girardeau, Mo. We splurged on our excursion here, choosing to visit two different ecosystems of Alaska. Gastineau Guiding leads the Alaskan Whales and Rainforest Trails tour. We started with a 2 1 / 2-hour ride on a boat so fast that Lightning McQueen couldn't catch us, yet no one felt remotely seasick. Our guide and captain found seven humpback whales for us. The boat would stop, they'd open the side windows, and we were treated with marvelous displays of whales lunge-feeding, lying on their backs, fins, tails and even jumping out of the water. "Oh, my god," exclaimed our tour guide, Jessica, as one propelled its whole body out of the water. It was bigger than our boat.
We also saw fish jumping out of the water and roaring sea lions. All around us were beautiful mountains and fjords, carved out by the Mendenhall glacier, which we saw several times on the trip. Other excursions take you by helicopter to the glacier, but most are pricey and require the kids to be older (one we considered was $355 for adults; $179 for kids).
On our second portion of the trip, we split into two groups to hike through the temperate rain forest on Douglas Island. Beneath the canopy we learned about ways the rainforest can provide shelter, food and medicine, as the kids followed along with a scavenger hunt. We also stopped for a walk along a rock beach, where my kids loved picking up shells and rocks. ($199 adults; $127 kids).
Ketchikan — As money was running low, we decided not to book a port adventure in Ketchikan. Turns out, that was a great plan. We only had six hours at port, and the ship docked in downtown. We decided to eat like a local with Alaskan king crab at local landmark Annabelle's, a restaurant in the 1927 Gilmore Hotel. We then did some souvenir shopping. Just like in ports of call along the Caribbean, many of the stores in the main shopping area were piled with the same merchandise. We headed to the historic part of town, an area that once was full of brothels (you can tour one of them, the famous Dolly's, for $5) and found a few more original shops and galleries.
IT'S A SMALL WORLD AFTER ALL
One afternoon, when the sun was out but the wind was making it slightly chilly, I sat on the side of Mickey's pool and struck up a conversation with another mom. Turns out, she was from St. Louis. Cindy Maes, 37, of Crestwood, joined her parents, some friends and her 6-year-old son, Anthony Hessee. Her father, who lives in Belgium, had always wanted to see Alaska and had always wanted to go on a cruise. "At first, I said, good luck, I am not going with you. Then he suggested the Disney cruise, and I was on board, literally."
Maes says she was impressed with all the ship had to offer, but the scenery of Alaska was the big draw. "I thought it was amazing," she says. "The glaciers … and all the colors, you really have to see it in person to appreciate the beauty."
Amy Bertrand: firstname.lastname@example.org