Part One: Welcome Aboard
(Itinerary: Southampton, England, to Barcelona, Spain)
"The Titanic sailed from here," I tell my wife.
There are probably better topics to bring up following an 18-hour overnight trip-including three hours waiting for our transfer bus in a hotel lobby near Heathrow Airport. But it's true, and here we are, staggering off the bus and getting a first glimpse of the white-hulled Crystal Serenity. The check-in stations here in Southampton's Queen Elizabeth II passenger ship terminal are humming with a quiet efficiency, like a no-frills bank branch.
At the point of passing through the security scanners, someone thrusts filled champagne flutes into our hands and takes our picture, a lasting testament to just how jovial two painfully exhausted people can make themselves look, fortified by a sip of bubbly and steely determination.
A courteous young gentleman in a suit and tie helps us find our cabin—hotel room is more like it, because this reminds me of a very nice Ritz-Carlton. At the near end is the door to a full marble bath. Ahead a sliding glass door leads to a balcony (They call them verandas on ships, and that reminds me of the old joke-She: Will you kiss me on the veranda? He: Your mouth would be fine.) In between are a couch, chairs, coffee table, and a shelf with a very cool looking flat-screen TV. And there, glorious in its sheer apparent cushiness, spreads a very inviting queen bed.
A muffled knock comes at the door. In steps Engin, the white-gloved butler. I know what you're thinking: a butler! How hopelessly elitist. Relax. Lots of the more attentive cruise lines, including Crystal, Princess, Radisson, and Celebrity, offer what they call butler service. Engin is really a somewhat upgraded room steward in tails. He tends to bringing you snacks and booking shore excursions for you while another staffer does the dirty work, making the bed and tidying up.
Engin is from Croatia, and he helpfully directs our attention to the room's features. But pretty soon helpful information like "This is how to set the safe combination" and "Here's how to set the thermostat" gives way to "Here is the bathroom" and "This switch turns on the lights."
My wife and I cast each other nervous glances that say "Engin doesn't want to leave!" Finally, I offer, "Thanks Engin. I'll take it from here."
A shadow of disappointment flits across his face, but then Engin, ever appropriate and with excellent posture, backs out the door.
At first blush it all seems a bit decadent. But hey, if we wanted to vacation like regular people, we'd be taking a Disney Cruise.
(Itinerary: Port Canaveral, Florida, to Western Caribbean)
"Apollo 11was launched from that pad right there," the bus driver announces. Off to the left, hunched low on the horizon, sits a squat frame of girders, Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center.
The sight thrills me, but the oohs and aahs floating down the aisle are directed toward the sight straight ahead: the sloping, black-hulled lines of our destination.
"And look!" he continues. "Looks like Goofy's doing a bit of touch-up painting for you." There, dangling from the ship's stern, hangs an enormous model of Goofy, apparently putting the final touches on the name of our cruise ship, the Disney Magic.
"Awww..." gushes the crowd. This includes my wife Cindy, her parents from Dallas, our son Ben and his wife Bronwen, and our younger sons Nick, 20, and Zack, 16. And somewhere out there, tooling along the Beeline Highway between Orlando and the pier, is our daughter Tiffany along with her husband Chris and their three daughters Emma, 4; Madison, 3; and Olivia, 7 months. They've driven all the way down from Maryland. Add on Chris's parents Jim and Marilyn, and we make up a considerable contingent. Still, the 15 of us account for merely .6 percent of the 2,400 passengers—900 of them children—traveling with us. Chip and Dale are scampering around the huge, art deco-inspired terminal.
Passengers are lined up four or five deep at the dozen or so check-in stations; parents anxiously trying to keep one eye on their bags, one eye on their children, and another eye on the small stack of documents required for boarding. I'm casting my gaze about for the little girls, who must be here somewhere. But even if they are, they are invisible in the teeming swarm of very, very excited children. We each find our own ways to our cabins, which the Disney reservations people have thoughtfully clustered in the same general area.
Our cabin is about the size of a small motel room, just big enough to comfortably accommodate my wife and me along with Nick and Zack. They get the fold-down bunk beds nearest the sliding doors, which open onto a small balcony.
The queen-size master bed (which can be pushed apart to create two twins) is nearer the bath-cleverly designed as two separate compartments, one with a sink and shower, another with a sink and commode. A thick curtain, pulled between the two sleeping areas, will define privacy for the next seven days. But hey, if my wife and I really wanted to be alone, we'd be taking an exotic Mediterranean cruise.
Waterford, Ireland, Crystal Serenity
The winds are whipping in off the Celtic Sea, creating a violent chop that threatens to foil the tenders waiting to take us ashore. A castle ruin, perched on a cliff to the west, stands against the gray sky, fading from view in the occasional rain squall. But the Crystal Serenity's 700 or so passengers are not about to let stormy weather stand in their way. These are truly dedicated shoppers, and today we are anchored short miles away from a true jewel in any discriminating collector's crown: Waterford, Ireland.
At dinner last night, and through breakfast this morning, there was little else discussed but the glittering treasures that lie ahead. While some lip service is paid to this part of Ireland, and the cultural landmarks therein, we all know that the real reason we were pulling up here is, well, crystal clear. They make crystal, Waterford Crystal, in Waterford. Crystal vases, crystal bowls, crystal chandeliers, crystal golf balls. Dozens of heavy laden buses disgorge themselves at the Waterford Crystal Factory showroom every day. Browsing around, even I find a delicately carved salt and pepper shaker set that I kind of like, but a cursory Ero-to-dollar calculation convinces me that $200 is a bit on the high side (My current salt shaker is cardboard, and has on its side a picture of a little girl carrying an umbrella). I find a Christmas ornament that seems remarkably reasonable, about $12. Then I notice a sticker on the bottom: Made in Germany. "Oh, yes," offers a lovely red-haired lass behind the cash register. "Most of our cheaper stuff is made outside of Ireland."
The true highlight of the day for me, and for every other guy here, comes during the crystal factory tour when they point out a guy off to the side, wearing gloves and goggles. His sole job is to inspect crystal pieces as they roll off the line-and smash the imperfect pieces by hurling them into a big box.
The men standing near me-retired CEOs, successful investment bankers, visionary entrepreneurs-glance at each other and nod knowingly. This guy, all agree, has the best job in the world.
Cozumel, Mexico, Disney Magic
From the moment our gangway is lowered on Cozumel's pier, the stream of Disney Magic passengers pours ashore in a relentless gush. Looking down from the deck, I can swear many of them are waving their American dollars above their heads and chanting the Yankee tourist's mantra: "I'll give you half that!"
I also notice there are remarkably few kids among the herd-and that's understandable, given the range of alternatives they've got. Some 25 excursions are offered, ranging from numerous snorkeling "adventures" to Mayan ruin tours to a "Fury Catamaran Teen Cruise." These things all cost money, of course, but just think how much you might have to spend on each kid in the shops on shore.
Nick and Zack, God bless 'em, are still happy to just chill out onboard, making up new rules for shuffleboard and soaking in the hot tub. Ben and Bronwen have found a beach up the coast, and Chris and Tiffany are busy playing "Let's All Pretend We're Taking a Nap" with the girls. Our friends and in-laws Jim and Marilyn have taken a taxi to some Mayan ruins, in the process greatly enriching the local blood supply for the island's thriving mosquito population.
With everyone else occupied, My wife, her parents, and I take a chance on the "Free Cozumel Shopping Tour." A free local taxi shuttles us about a mile up the main seaside thoroughfare-and drops us off at a glitzy new indoor mall. There, hosts pour champagne (There's free liquor everywhere in Cozumel's shops-all the better to help you make important purchasing decisions) while salespeople wearing Madonna-style head mics rush through their sales raps for jewelry, leather goods, carvings, and silver.
One guy is selling prescription drugs-without, our hosts hasten to add, the need for pesky minutiae like an actual doctor's prescription. "What do you sell the most of?" I ask him. He points to a small pyramid of boxes labeled "Viagra." The cost: $28 a pill. That's nearly three times the cost in the US (Look, I just happen to know that, okay?).
"Do you sell a lot of these?" I ask. His broad smile is all the answer I need, but he adds, "Lots of cruise ships."
Engin awakens us with a gentle, gloved knock on the cabin door. "Excuse me, sir," he apologizes softly. "But your waffles are in danger of getting cold."
Breakfast is set on the veranda, the silver coffee pots and shiny utensils glittering against the impossibly blue Mediteranean. Yesterday afternoon we sailed from Gibraltar—I watched the fabled rock glide past as I sat with a dozen other passengers, taking keyboard lessons in the ship's large-windowed music studio. This morning there is nothing but sea on all horizons.
After breakfast we head up to the ship's library to return the books we've been ploughing through for the past couple of days, and to borrow a Scrabble board. Eleven a.m. is rolling around, and there is a muted, yet electric frenzy coursing through many of the passengers. At that hour, the jewelry shop will hold a drawing for a quartz bracelet. For days we've all been stuffing the shop's plexiglass box with entry forms. Seventy or so anxious hopefuls stand around the entrance for the big event, and everyone applauds politely when the prize goes to a little lady in a big flowered dress.
"Let's go inside the shop and look around," one woman tells her husband. "I knew it," he says.
My granddaughters suddenly start yelling, "Chip! Chip!" and I am sure someone had broken a tooth. Over my shoulder, across the teeming dining room, I catch sight of Chip and Dale, two enormous chipmunk characters, barreling in the direction of our breakfast table, one chasing the other with a spatula.
After several days afloat, you'd think that sights like this around the Disney breakfast table would become as routine as a morning newspaper delivery, but this, this is something special. The 15 of us are here in the Parrot Cay dining room for the Character Breakfast, and it is a rambunctious affair. Our dedicated table servers somehow manage to weave among the dancing Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, and Pluto to bring us our eggs and pancakes without so much as a single syrup drip. I find it unsettling to see Goofy and Pluto in the same room, and then I remember that classic exchange among the kids in the Stephen King movie, Stand by me:
"Pluto's a dog. What's Goofy?"
"Goofy's a dog. He's definitely a dog."
"He can't be a dog. He wears a hat and drives a car."
"God, that's weird. What the hell is Goofy?"
The girls are dazed with delight, their wide eyes glued on the fuzzy Disney mascots, while our eyes are fastened on them.
Every once in a while, the Crystal Serenity's activity schedule seems to invite couples to spend quality time apart. Early this afternoon many of the women are heading off to a lecture on "Furniture Styles: English and American" while their husbands file into the theater for a former US ambassador's talk on "Franchising Terror: Al Qaeda and the Threat to America." For me, this smacks too much of Sunday morning news shows—there's a glorious sun above and a brilliant sea all around.
We take the elevator to the pool deck and lie in the sun, watching it bob smoothly with each surge of our ship. Above the gentle rumble of the distant engines, we hear the Mediterranean gently splash against the hull below. From farther down the deck, the distinct aroma of garlic mingled with barbequed lamb and pork wafts across the pool. It's lunchtime, and the ship's "Cuisine in the Sun" buffet is served. All fourteen countries bordering the Mediterranean are represented (lemon zucchini Vichysoise from France, stuffed wine leaves from Greece, marinated lamb skewers from Turkey).
We move from table to table, the servers promoting their particular dish with subdued salesmanship. "Seafood brioche, Mr. Newcott?" offers one. "Olive bread, Mr. Newcott?" asks another. "Can I find you a table, Mr. Newcott?" says yet another. How do these people know my name? And how do they seemingly know the names of all 700 passengers? I, who would give my own kids name tags if I could get away with it, am absolutely awestruck at the phenomenon. I picture a huge control center, staffed by hundreds of shadowy figures watching monitors and whispering to the crew through implanted radio sets: "That's Mr. Rodriguez. He likes his shrimp peeled from front to back."
And so the day continues. There's a movie every afternoon, and not surprisingly, lots of them titles AARP the Magazine honored last year as the best Movies for Grownups. There's an art auction in the Palm Court lounge—the Rembrandt etching is a steal for $8,000, and there's a really nice Miro for just a bit more. Hmm. What am I thinking? That's how much my son Zachary's braces are going to cost.I look around and wonder what Zack would do to amuse himself on this trip.
There are, in fact, perhaps a dozen kids on the ship, most of them in their mid-teens. But after several days they'd played every video game in the ship's tiny kids' lounge, and had tired of whacking tennis balls at each other on the top-deck court. Now they were merely roaming the decks in small bands, like the Sharks in West Side Story, bored to the brink of lawlessness.
The pool is a huge factor on the Disney Magic. Pools, actually, because there are three of them: One for kids only, one for kids and adults, and one just for grownups.
The kids one is shaped like Mickey, and one of its ears is actually the kiddie pool—the only one that permits kids in diapers. It's a work of genius: water fills in from the round outer rim and immediately swirls on down the sloped pool floor to a central drain. Yup. It's a great big toilet.
The mixed-use pool is a frenetic affair with kids running everywhere and sliding down a bright yellow two-story slide held aloft by a humongous gloved "Mickey" hand. And finally, to the front, is the adult pool. They call it the Quiet Cove. It truly is more tranquil than the others, except when the Magic is leaving a port. Then the ship's horns-situated directly above the Quiet Cove- blare out the first seven notes of "When You Wish Upon a Star." How loud are they? Imagine seven finely tuned nuclear explosions.
Have I mentioned the kids lately? I know I brought several. I can even picture their faces. But aside from our big all-together-now dinners—the best part of every day—they're hard to find. Emma and Madison are in the Oceaneer Club, a vast indoor kids car e center designed like a pirate ship, with twinkling electrical stars above. There are story times, costume dress-up times, rest times, and meal times. Kids are signed in and out by their parents, who keep in touch with a cool pocket pager system. Still, there always seems to be some kid who's crying about having just been left there, and the stubbornly sad ones absorb too much of the staff's attention.
Early on, Tiffany and Chris figured out just how much of the Oceaneer Club was enough for their girls. As for baby Olivia, she has put in some time at Flounder's Reef Nursery (a bargain at $6 an hour). But as time goes on, I see the three girls spending more and more time with their parents, and that is perhaps the way it should be. We're always running into them out on deck or visiting them in their cabin-which after a few days has begun to resemble the interior of a gypsy wagon.
As for Zack, I think this cruise was created especially for him. There's a teens-only lounge, where today they created and painted their own animation cels. And he's become a karaoke darling, I hear.
Last night, at midnight, the ship premiered the brand-new Disney movie, "Pirates of the Caribbean," and Zack stayed up for it. Now I ask you, when was the last time your teenager came tiptoeing home at 2:30 a.m. and you simply smiled to yourself, rolled over, and went back to sleep?
Part 5: Big Night Out
Dinner is formal, and on this ship that means tuxedo—and in some cases tails. The women are wearing gowns seemingly purchased for the last Presidential Inaugural Ball. Joining us at our table is the vice-captain of the ship, a charming, impossibly dashing Norwegian.
Around our table sit a couple from Texas (He was a pioneer in the copier business), a recent widow who spends months every year on cruise ships, a retired psychologist who organizes cruise group tours, and a divorcee from Australia. Among them, they've cruised more than 200 times, and all agree this is the best cruise food they've ever had.
Tonight's highlights: iced Russian Osetre caviar, cream of asparagus Argenteuil, and roasted stuffed wild pheasant breast. For dessert, the entire dining room staff parades among the tables holding aloft baked Alaska flambe'. I've yet to take a cruise where this didn't happen.
Tonight's dinner is formal. They'll rent you a tux here, but most of the passengers seem satisfied with jackets and ties and nice dresses. Not so our group: The guys are dashing in black and the women are stunning in their gowns. My wife is wearing a dress from one or our kids' weddings; her mom is in a beaded gown worthy of the first-class dining room on board the Queen Elizabeth II.
Off the atrium lobby, all 15 of us crowd around Mickey and Minnie—also in tux and long black gown—for a family portrait. As we disperse, we're served champagne and strawberries.
The Captain's Gala dinner chef's recommendations are grilled shrimp, wild forest mushroom soup, roasted turkey, and warm chocolate cake. As always, there's a good kid's menu with frozen Mickey Mouse ice cream bars for dessert. On our last night, I'm told, the entire dining room staff will parade among the tables holding aloft baked Alaska flambe'. I believe it.
There's a farewell show in the theater tonight, featuring several of the performers we've been seeing each evening (they've included an Ed Sullivan-worthy lineup of a slinky female oboe player, an Australian male vocalist, a concert pianist, and a ventriloquist). By far the best show was an imported production of the musical "Forever Plaid."
At this evening's good-bye reception, Captain Riedulf Maalen greets us at the entrance to the Palm Court lounge. We thank him for his hospitality, and he seems genuinely pleased with the compliment. I mention we recently sailed on the Disney Magic, captained by an old friend of his. "Oh, yes, he's a fine man," says Maalen. "And he has those fine features—just the look they wanted in a captain."
There is dancing and flowing champagne, and finally the captain signals for the band—the Manilla Trio—to silence. He makes a short speech, emphasizing the special relationship Crystal Cruises tries to nurture with its passengers.
"You are not merely visitors with us," he says, and his voice seems to quaver with emotion, "You are our family. You are part of the Crystal family. And I hope that one day soon you will come home to us again."
Nearby, wiping a tear from here eye, is our recently widowed table mate. "He's so right," she sniffs. "I really do feel like this is my home. We really are a family."
Captain Hans Mataboer—who on the first night of the cruise rose from the Walt Disney Theater stage in a blanket of billowing smoke—offers his good-bye as part of the Farewell Variety Show. This is by far the most theater-like auditorium I've ever seen on a ship, with rows of seats, rather than the usual cocktail tables. The crowd went wild last night for "Disney Dreams," the big show of the cruise, complete with a soaring Peter Pan. The little girls couldn't believe their eyes. Tonight, however, is packing night, and virtually all the kid activities have ended.
At about 9:30 p.m., I gaze down from the top level of the four-story atrium lobby and see a vision of what would have become of us all if Disney had not intervened on the first night to instill order. On each level, boys chase girls and girls chase boys. Kids on level four scream to kids on level two. On the lobby floor below, several kids simply spin, arms outstretched, bouncing off walls, furniture, and people as they go.
The last morning, our suitcases waiting on the pier, we crowd around some café tables for a last breakfast. Some of us are driving home, some are staying in Florida a few days, the rest of us are flying to different corners of the country.
In our last moments together until who knows when, this crowded, noisy restaurant is our home. We really are a family.
Photo By Bill Newcott
A considerably shorter version of this article appeared in AARP the Magazine