Saturday, January 5, 2008

Final scramble

It is such a blast being surrounded by all of the characters. But… now we’re back in the Suite, rushing to get our luggage out the door again. Oh, well. It was fun while it lasted.

We’ve got to have our bags packed and in the hallway by 11:00 p.m. Okay, it’s not an absolute necessity, but the reward is that we don’t have to haul all of our bags off of the ship. Disney crew members pick up the bags and carry them off the ship for us, and then we find them on the lower level of the DCL terminal tomorrow morning, where we take them through customs. We could in theory take them off of the ship ourselves, but it’s a lot more convenient this way.

This means, of course, that we must have everything out of the bags that we need for sleeping tonight, dressing in the morning, and traveling tomorrow. We’re never organized in advance enough, no matter how much we plan, to get the bags out early, so it always turns into a last-minute rush.

I throw things into the bags – no sense being organized now, just want to make sure everything gets home somehow. Becky and I tear through all of the cabinets, drawers, closets, nooks, crannies… Okay, this is one time that being in the Walt Disney Suite is a disadvantage – there are a lot of places to look!

In the meantime, Brandon and Benjamin are getting ready for bed. I can tell Brandon’s a little frazzled from the long day. But they head for bed, and right at 11:00 I place the final bags outside the door.

Whew. Okay, that was a chore, but the bags are gone now, and we can relax. I chuckle to myself when I remember our last cruise – that was worse, because one of the boys packed away his Key to the World card, and we had to scramble after our bags and rummage through them to find it. It would have been a huge hassle trying to get off of the ship without it.

I’m pretty sure we learned our lesson last time, and I’d mentioned this to everyone already today, but… just to be safe, I’d better ask again.

That’s when I learn that Benjamin’s KTTW card is on his lanyard. Which he packed.

I scramble for the door, in my sock feet, screaming bloody murder – at least internally. Our bags our gone! ARGH!

There’s a luggage cart down the hallway. I race down towards it and find the boys suitcases on it. I can’t tell if I’ve surprised the poor CM who’s been collecting luggage or if he’s used to this sort of spectacle, but frankly, my attention isn’t on him. It’s on the bags I’m digging through, and … yes! Got it!

I thank the crew member and pad back to the Suite, the panic subsided. We’re ready to go for tomorrow.

Okay, not quite ready. As Becky and the boys settle down for the night, I finish up my trip notes, work some on the DCL guest survey, and then fill that big whirlpool tub with hot water for another late-night soak.

Ahhhh…. If this is my final night in the Walt Disney Suite, I’m going end it in style!

‘Till We Meet Again

We now rejoin your previously scheduled program, already in progress...

We have a few minutes to go until the 10:00 “’Till We Meet Again” massive character greet. Bob and Linda decide to turn in for the night. The rest of us head towards Mickey’s Mates for some last-night shopping.

On the way we find Christiaan greeting the exiting crowds. I thank him for a great cruise, and he’s nice enough to pose with the boys for a picture.

The store is crowded. I never do find a new cruise line hat that I like, so I don’t end up buying any. Maybe next trip? Becky finds a t-shirt that she likes, which has several of the character’s signatures printed on it, so it matches the boys’. Benjamin is tempted by many of the pins on sale.

Speaking of pins, Katrina from the pin station is checking us out. Okay, that sounds wrong. Katrina is working at the check-out counter. (Much better.)

Benjamin notices she has a pin of “Scrump,” Lilo’s homemade rag doll, on her lanyard, and tells Katrina he had one just like it. Well, yes, she replies – you traded it to me!

Okay, it’s just about 10:00, and Becky and the boys want to get a little more casual, so we all hustle up to the Suite. There's a towel lobster on the bed.

Once clothes are changed, we head back down to Deck 3.

When we arrive, we’ve missed the grand introduction, but the characters are just arriving, streaming in. On the last trip the boys and I saw this for the first time, and it is a Disney character lover’s dream. There are new characters everywhere you turn, on two different levels of the atrium. We still do have some packing left, so as a practical matter we focus on the characters whose signatures the boys do not yet have (sorry Mickey!):

Starting with Minnie, I noticed for the first time that the non-face characters never hold still. Even when posing, they do this head-bobble movement that (1) gives life to the character and (2) really comes out blurry when you have a cheap digital camera with a slow shutter speed!

Notice the bobble-head blur on Goofy also. (Yes, I know I need a better camera, or a flash.)

With Anne Marie and Peter Pan, the stars of Disney Dreams.

Ensign Bensen, the star of The Golden Mickeys.

Captain James "Bobblehead" Hook

Disney Dreams

So here we sit, waiting for the start of my favorite onboard Disney stage show, perhaps one of the best stage shows ever for Disney fans. It is a “kiss goodnight” from the Cruise Line to us, and it never fails to wring the emotions out of me.

I’ve read that this is an “enhanced” version, with added effects and characters. I’m both curious and skeptical. I’d hate for any additions to detract from what was already a great show.

Right away, though – even before the show starts – a new effect appears. Accompanied by a tinkling sound effect, a laser-generated Tinker Bell sparkle flits and sparkles and loops across the main curtain, and then disappears. Tink “reappears” every few minutes. It’s a simple thing, but it gets the audience, me included, bubbling with anticipation. Okay, I think I’m going to really enjoy the enhanced version.

When it’s time for the show to begin, cruise director Christiaan runs out on stage and flips to a stop, literally, with a one-handed cartwheel! The guy is awesome.

The last time I saw this, on our 2005 cruise, I documented just about every scene, kind of like I did for The Golden Mickeys last night. Sorry, but tonight, I sit back and just enjoy the show, without taking many pictures. Feel free to check out my 2005 report for pictures and a rehash of my 2003 narrative.

Disney Dreams is amazing as always, and the new effects are spectacular, beginning with the title of the show "etched" in laser light on the main curtain just before it rises. The laser is used (without being overused) throughout the show, to portray Tinker Bell and to add to the pixie dust sparkling in the theater at the end of the show.

There are a couple of character additions, notably Timon & Pumbaa in the Lion King segment. I notice some other new touches as well, such as confetti cannons at the end of the "Prince Ali" section and snow falling (!) on Beauty and Beast. I may be imagining it, but it seems as if the script has been tightened, and flows even better than before.

Besides these changes, though, the biggest improvement is to the flying that the characters do. In the original version, when Anne Marie learns to fly near the end of the show, she and Peter Pan are hoisted straight up, and then sideways off stage. Dramatic, but not that impressive.

The flying is different from the start of the show in this one. When Peter Pan first appears in Anne Marie's window, he launches himself off the window sill and soars effortless toward the audience and around the stage before landing again. It is breathtaking, and serves the storyline much better -- after all, if Peter is teaching Anne Marie how to fly, it's great to demonstrate that he already knows how! Best of all is the complete unexpectedness of the flying, for those of us who have seen the show before. It's a brief thing, but very stunning.

Of course, at the end of the show, both Peter and Anne Marie's flying is vastly improved -- no straight up and out any more! It's really cool.

The show is as touching as always, and the performers receive a well-deserved standing ovation. It's got me choked up again as well, with pixie dust filling the theatre and then the "home is where dreams come true" line and all of the characters coming out. Sniff.

The boys and I sing heartily along with the exit music, "When You Wish Upon a Star" as taken from WDW's "Remember the Magic" parade finale, as we walk up the aisles. Sniff.

Do real animators eat this well?

For my entrĂ©e, I select the bacon-wrapped filet mignon, served with a seafood-stuffed pastry shell. Becky orders the same. It’s delicious. Benjamin orders the lemon pepper chicken… and frankly, I start enjoying the conversation and atmosphere so much that I stop paying attention to (and taking notes on) what everyone else is eating. Just trust me that it was all good.

Sutas and Nino are delightful as ever, and at one point Lars the concierge stops by the table. He had popped by the Walt Disney Suite to deliver our printed arrival weather forecast and didn’t find us there. He must have gone there right after we left to have our portrait made. He gives us the custom-printed page and asks us if there is anything else he can do for us. It’s honestly hard to think of anything we could possibly be lacking!

There’s no “tribute to animation” video, but the servers do parade out, after we are asked to show who had the best servers by our cheering, of course. The high-pitched roar throughout the restaurant is almost deafening – everyone on a Disney cruise gets treated well!

Dessert time – again! Becky’s drawn to the chocolate and peanut butter pie, just as she is drawn to almost everything that combines chocolate and peanut butter. I’m not as big a fan, but when she offers me a bite I try it, and it is good! Bob also gets the pie, while Linda and I each get the ice cream sundae, which turns out to be a rather large concoction with a small wedge of chocolate walnut cake topped with scoops of both strawberry and mud pie ice cream, and drowned in a fudge sauce and whipped cream. Yum, yum, yum.

Brandon and Benjamin… can’t make up their minds, and each ends up ordering two desserts, with our once in a lifetime (or at least once in a cruise) permission. Brandon gets the chocolate / peanut butter pie and a Mickey bar, while Benjamin orders the double-fudge chocolate cake and custard.

Head server Bhoola stops by, and along with Sutas and Nino gives us our morning of departure instructions, which we already know by heart. We are to be out of our room and down here at the same table for breakfast at the way-early hour of 6:45, and then we leave the ship immediately thereafter. Sigh. I guess the end is that near.

We thank them all for a wonderful cruise. We’ll probably see them again in the morning, but better to thank them twice than forget.

We’re out the door at 7:45. We’d like to get to the Walt Disney Theatre earlier for Disney Dreams so as to get my long-leg seats on the center aisle, but first we have some more pin trading to do – and this time there are officers present with their lanyards. Katrina, the crew member who’s been at this pin station both previous nights, is here again, but there’s also a line of 4 or 5 DCL officers in their pristine white uniforms.

It’s fun chatting with them – and they have some cool pins. Brandon and I both end up making two trades, and when we compare pins afterward, we find that we’ve both ended up with the same pins! One is a Disney Cruise Line-specific pin commemorating pin trading on board, and the other is a small pin of the WDW monorail. The only difference between our pins is the color of the monorail!

From the atrium we head up to Deck 4 and down to the Walt Disney Theatre. It’s not open yet, and there is a small line, but before long we’re able to go in.

And we get the long-leg seats.

On the fritz

Animator’s Palate is a stunning, imaginative restaurant, themed as a tribute to Disney animation and animators over the years. With the special effects and unique musical score, this one restaurant added $4.3 million to the costs of building the ship.

It is a delight to the eyes and ears as well as the taste buds, for as you enter the restaurant, all is in black-and-white – the walls (covered, on closer examination, with copies of Disney character pencil sketches), the ceiling (which features painters’ palettes supported by “paint brush” columns), the framed artwork of Disney characters on the walls. Tables, chairs, even the wait staff’s uniforms, all are in black and white.

As you dine, the music swells and recedes with themes from many classic Disney features, and portraits associated with that film change to color. When all the pictures have turned to color, they change back to black and white – some of the frames change pictures entirely – and the process begins again. Splashes of color pulse overhead as well, on the ceiling palettes and with fiber optics in the paint brushes.

Then, after the entrees have been cleared, the lights lower and video screens play a sweet and stirring tribute to the art of storytelling through animation, and at the climax of the video “Zip-Ah-Dee-Doo-Dah” plays, the lights come up, and the restaurant has turned to color – not just the pictures and paint brushes, as before, but the formerly black and white walls are awash in oranges and yellows. Our servers parade enthusiastically to the music, now wearing colorful vests instead of plain ones.

That’s the experience of Animator’s Palate. When it works.

When the doors finally open, it’s quickly apparent that the delay was caused by the “show” part of the restaurant, as the walls are already in color as we enter. That… just shouldn’t be yet.

Some of the show lights flicker on and off, and the music doesn’t even play until we’ve been seated for twenty minutes. Eventually they get the lights to the black and white setting, but there are still obvious problems. At least, the problems are obvious to those of us who know what to expect. I just feel sorry for new cruisers not getting to experience the full effect.

Dinner is still delicious, even without fully functional effects. As an appetizer, Linda and I each order the seafood and avocado wrapper, which is very tasty, while Becky and Brandon get the wild garlic mushrooms in a pastry cup. Benjamin has a fruit plate, while Bob passes on an appetizer and just orders a Caesar salad. Linda gets a bowl of butternut squash soup, but Becky, Brandon and I add a Caesar salad as well.

When the salads arrive, Benjamin decides he’d like one, too. We flag Sutas to see if that’s okay, knowing the answer before we ask. Life on a cruise ship is pretty amazing, and they do their best to spoil you rotten. Benjamin soon has his salad.

Portrait and Palate

After we’re well on our way, we return inside to dress for dinner. This night we will be in Animator’s Palate – always a great experience – but we’re also dressing up a bit to have our shipboard portrait done.

Once we’re ready we head down to the atrium. I’m hoping the backdrop with the ship against the Mickey sunset is still available. That looked so cool. Alas, when we arrive, the background is a stark white. They’re just going for plain and artsy this time. Bummer.

We start to line up for our picture, but as we look around we see a second photographer one floor up. The background is abstract but colorful, which is already an improvement, but the big difference that makes us go there is the fact that the portraits are being done with Mickey!!

Mickey Mouse is posing with all comers, resplendent in his tuxedo. We’ve had family portraits done on both previous cruises, but never with the Mouse. This’ll be great.

We head upstairs and join the short line, with Becky double-checking the boys’ hair and making sure we’re all photogenic – to the limits of what she has to work with, of course. Soon enough, our turn comes, and we gather around Mickey. The photographer poses us and takes a few shots, and a nearby female crew member is nice enough to take a couple of pictures with our own cameras.

Mickey, of course, doesn’t say much, but he’s still pretty nice to hang out with.

We’re done with pictures at about 5:45, meaning that we have 15 minutes to go until our official dinner time, but we still head down to the restaurant, just down the hall on this same deck, since they usually begin seating early.

Shutters, the photo shop, is on the way, and we stop to look at some other pictures. Since we just had our portrait made, we’ll have to come back by here again, probably tomorrow morning, to buy it. It’s possible it might be here later tonight, though.

When we arrive at Animator’s Palate, the doors are shut and there is a bit of a line already formed. I don’t mind the wait in and of itself, but it’s quickly getting warm and stuffy in this hallway. Brandon is especially feeling the warmth, since he got a little sunburned on the beach.

I eventually step out the nearby double doors to the outside deck for some fresh air. The sun has just set, and the Caribbean sky is absolutely beautiful. It is windy and a little cold, so I cool off in a hurry. After I return, Brandon goes outside himself.

Six o’clock is fast approaching, and the restaurant doors still haven’t opened. That’s odd, especially considering how punctual shipboard activities usually are. Of course, they’re not late yet, but usually people are being seated well before the scheduled arrival time.

At 6:00 straight up – there’s that punctuality! – the Animator’s Palate doors open, and the servers work quickly to seat everyone waiting. There’s no hint of whatever problem might have delayed the opening… Oh, wait. Yes, there is.

The walls are in color.

Casting off

Around four o’clock I go to get clean – in the two-shower-head
walk-in stall again. I take my time and savor the experience, knowing I probably won’t use the Suite’s shower again. (The tub, however? We’ll see.)

When I’m out and dressed, we begin packing in earnest. We normally leave packing for after the show, but that always seems to end up as a rushed effort to have the bags out the door by 11:00, when the crew picks them up. This time, I really want Becky to experience the “’Til We Meet Again” character goodbye in the Atrium at ten, and I know she won’t think about coming unless the packing is mostly done.

We’re departing from Castaway Cay at 5:00, so at five minutes till most of us go out on the balcony to watch the departure. Since we’re right over the dock, we have a front row (if elevated) view of the well-rehearsed interplay of activity that accompanies the ship’s exit.

The Wonder is attached to the dock with several big heavy ropes both at the fore and aft of the ship. Workers on the dock at each location are already casting off some, but not all, of those ropes, even though a couple of gangways still attached.

When we look to the right, we can see that Captain Henry and his first officer are overseeing the departure on the port wing of the bridge, which is on the same deck as us. The cover is open on the outdoor-grill-shaped console they use to control the engines and side thrusters.

The main task needing to be completed before departure on the dock below is apparently the final gathering of all of the towels. A tractor has pulled a trailer loaded with bags of used towels near the base of one of the ramps, and crew members are quickly transfer the towels into tall wheeled carts. When the bags are empty, the carts are pushed up the ramps and onto the ship.

Once that is completed, forklifts remove both gangways from the ship and set them on the dock. The final ropes are cast off fore and aft, and when we look straight down we can see that the ship is moving sideways away from the dock, pushed by the Wonder’s side thrusters. It’s an amazing thing to watch.

We start to detect some forward motion as the ship slowly begins to accelerate out of its slip – and then the “When You Wish Upon a Star” horn sounds. We’re on our way!

On the dock, six of the island cast members, their work done, stand side by side waving goodbye to us – with Mickey-gloved hands. I love Disney!

Once the ship clears the outer marker buoy, the officers retreat from the wing. It’s fascinating to watch so massive a ship depart so gracefully, but it’s also a bit sad. It means we’ve started the last leg of our cruise.

Unlikely entertainment

Shortly after Captain Henry leaves us, Bob and Linda get up to go to the Suite to change. Becky and I spend another 20 or 25 quiet minutes relaxing on deck, and then we follow.

When we arrive in the Suite, Aladdin is showing on the television. Disney, Disney, Disney, all around us. It's wonderful. Certainly there are people in the world for whom this would be "Disney overload" – and there are plenty of non-Mouse-related channels and other options for them – but I love the total immersion in the magic.

Bob and Linda point out our newest delivery from the concierge staff – a plate of deluxe sweets, including chocolate truffles, chocolate-dipped strawberries, and mini fruit tarts. I’m still full of hot dog and pizza, so I just share a truffle with Becky, and then she also has a chocolate-dipped strawberry.

I flip the TV over to the other Disney movie channel and find Lilo & Stitch, a movie I can watch over and over without getting tired of it. Bob goes to take a nap, and the boys return from swimming. We send them to shower the chlorine off.

Once again, this is the life – just relaxing, doing not much of anything, in the Walt Disney Suite. It's still hard to wrap my brain around the idea that I'm actually getting to do this, but it's getting easier. I'll be fully adjusted to the luxury by the time the cruise ends, I'm sure.

At one point I flip over to a shipboard channel, where cruise director Christiaan is giving the debarkation talk. They used to do this live in the Walt Disney Theatre and then replay it for those who missed it, but now I think it’s just shown on the television.

Normally I don’t pay too close of attention to these talks, since they don’t tell me much I don’t already know, but I find myself really enjoying Christiaan’s version. He’s pretty funny.

Christiaan gives the usual information about using the luggage tags and filling out the customs forms. When he starts talking about the printed charge information being slipped under our stateroom doors in the wee hours of the morning, he says, “Now, for some of you, your printout will be too big to fit under the door. So when you hear a big ‘thud’ in the middle of the night, that’s what it is.” He then gives an embarrassed laugh and says, “I shouldn’t say that!”

Whatever reluctance he feels about improvising on his script doesn’t last long. He advises cruisers that no alcohol can be in checked bags, and then says if any is found, “it has a way of showing up at crew parties.”

He then reminds cruisers that, before they put their bags out in the halls tonight for removal from the ship, they should remember to get clothing out for the next day. He reports that he has seen whole families appear in the atrium, “wearing nothing but pajamas or pillow cases, and it’s not funny.” He pauses a bit, and then admits, “Okay, it’s funny for me…”

I’ve never been so entertained by a debarkation talk before.

Captain Henry Andersson

Benjamin and Brandon are having a good time in the pool, Becky and I are resting and reading at the table. Then Bob and Linda appear. I guess the island just wasn’t fun any more without us! They did stay to eat lunch on Castaway Cay before returning to the ship.

Hey, there’s Captain Henry – just strolling around chatting with people. I’ve written in previous trip reports about how his job is one of the most fascinating I can think of. Being master of the vessel not only puts him in charge of the operation and piloting of the ship itself, it also makes him the ultimate boss of everything else – dining, hotel, and entertainment. There is an extensive social aspect to the job, what with the various receptions and the mingling that is required (I’ve seen him autographing purchases in the Treasure Ketch store!), and being a Disney captain certainly means that he must take “making magic” seriously.

In a moment, the good Captain walks over to our table and chats with Becky, Bob, Linda and me. He is extremely nice and easy to talk to, and gives no hint of reluctance to answer questions that I’m sure he has answered literally thousands of times over. (For the record, though, the answers are: He’s been at sea for 38 years (!); he has been a ship’s captain for the past 25 years; and he has worked for Disney for 12 years – which by my math would start his employment with DCL before either the Disney Magic or Disney Wonder were launched.)

While he has captained the Magic, he is only aboard the Wonder now. I ask him about the two new, much larger Disney cruise ships that are being built, and whether he will put in to helm one of them. I’m behind the curve, though – Captain Henry says that he has already been assigned to one of them!

Bob asks what itineraries the new ships will be on, but Captain Henry does not yet know. Surprisingly to me, though, he expresses a hope that his ship will be assigned to the 3-day/4-day cruise rotations. He says he really, really enjoys these shorter cruises.

Captain Henry wishes us a enjoyable remainder of the cruise and safe return home, and then excuses himself. What a very nice guy.

A relaxed lunch on Deck 9

Our stateroom hosts are in the Suite when we return from the beach, finishing up their morning cleaning. The beds are made – with a few of our stuffed friends placed sitting together on the master bed – and the boys’ folded away. In the dining room, the dirty breakfast dishes and the tablecloth are nowhere to be seen.

We also have the necessary (but unwelcome!) forms that we need for the end of our cruise – luggage tags, customs declaration forms, and our cruise survey. They’ve left us eight luggage tags for the six of us – I ask for three more, since we’ll have them carry 11 bags off the ship for us.

After we freshen up a bit, we leave the Suite for Deck 9. I take the etiquette book with me, the one I found on the bookshelves here. I hope that’s not a no-no – I will return it, after all. We climb the stairs to Deck 9 and claim a table next to the port walkway, midship, near the Goofy pool. Benjamin goes straight for the pool, which only has a couple of other people in it.

I walk down to the drink station and get sodas for Becky and me. After delivering them to the table, I walk across to the starboard side of Deck 9 and take some pictures of the island, the unfinished side of the Flying Dutchman, and the clear blue water below. It has turned into a gorgeous day.

I then cross around to Pluto’s Dog House, which is at the base of the aft funnel facing the Mickey Pool. I’m in the mood for something pretty basic here, so I order a hot dog and some fries. Once I get back to the table, Becky hops up to find her lunch.

While she’s gone, I suddenly spot Brandon walking by. Hmm. I thought he would still be on the island, but apparently he didn’t stay for much longer after we left.

Becky returns with her plate, very satisfied with what she was able to find, a chicken salad wrap and lots of fresh fruit. She says she got it at Pluto’s Dog House, too. Hmm, I didn’t even notice those options. No big deal, though – I still probably would have gotten a hot dog.

Our cruise director, Christiaan, walks by and gives us a friendly greeting. He’s a nice guy. I’ve been impressed with all three cruise directors we’ve had – all have been friendly and enthusiastic – but Christiaan might just be my favorite. He not only has a bit of a mischievous streak, which I always admire, he also just seems to be having a total blast at his job. It’s a very genuine energy he possesses. I know I could never maintain it for any length of time.

There’s a “virtual bridge tour” scheduled to show on the big screen above the pool beginning at 12:15. It starts on time, but there’s no sound playing. I debate going to tell someone, but I shrug it off. I’ve got my book to read.

After my hot dog is gone, I go sample the pizza from Pinocchio’s. Once I have a refill on my drink, I’m settled in for a nice, quiet relaxing time on deck.