By Steve MacNaull
Disney Cruise Line
All of sudden Jack Sparrow drops from the sky. He battles an endless onslaught of sword-wielding pirates with comic schtick and then sets off a dazzling series of fireworks over the ocean.
No, this is not the next installment in the wildly-successful Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise by Disney (although it could be). It’s the Pirates in the Caribbean Party and Buccaneer Blast Fireworks show on the second night of our cruise aboard the new Disney Fantasy ship.
Jack Sparrow, the hapless pirate made famous by actor Johnny Depp on film, is in this case played by a Disney cast member and his impressive plunge from the top of the smokestack to deck 11 comes with the help of trapeze wire a la Cirque de Soleil.
The enemy pirates are also cast members schooled in comedy and faux sword fighting. And the fireworks are a Disney exclusive.
The company jumped through a lot of hoops, cleared a bunch of safety hurdles and spends a heap of money to be the only cruise line to have pyrotechnic extravaganzas at sea. But then again we don't expect anything less of Disney. After all, it’s a masterful entertainment conglomerate that seamlessly spans the movie, TV, theme park, travel, hotel and cruising worlds.
The 1,250 cabin, 4,000-passenger, 14-deck Disney Fantasy is the latest crown in the empire.
It’s plying the waters of the Caribbean on seven day sailings round trip from Port Canaveral, Florida, which, with typical Disney business aplomb is located close to Walt Disney World in Orlando for handy pre-and-post cruise play.
The pirate party and fireworks is by no means the first and only time my wife and I and our nine-year-old daughter are awed on the cruise. Castaway Cay, Disney’s private island in the Bahamas, has turned out to be the cruise line’s most popular port of call in the world.
“It’s the kid factor,” Disney Parks & Resorts chairman Tom Staggs tells me when I bump into him on the Fantasy’s inaugural cruise.
“Ask a kid if they’d rather stop in Barcelona (which Disney ships do on their Mediterranean itineraries) or Castaway Cay and I know what the answer will be.”
We don’t just take Staggs’ word for it. We walk the gangplank when the ship docks at Castaway to experience it for ourselves.
Disney’s again done a lot of planning and spent a lot of cash developing a tropical paradise that feels deserted, but offers a bevy of resort amenities, all at the same time.
First off before it gets too hot we rent single-gear retro bikes and pedal on trails through the interior mangroves of the island. It really does feel like a deserted island because most of the time we have the trails to ourselves.
While only 4.8 kilometres by 3.2 kilometres, Disney has only had to develop one-twentieth of it to create a sought-after getaway. Most of the amenities, of course, hug the coast.
Spectacular beaches along the south shore cater to families, while Serenity Beach on the north end is adults-only. We sun, swim and ride the waterslides at the family beach before a lunch of marinated chicken and spicy mahi mahi at Cookie’s BBQ.
And then it's into the snorkelling lagoon. Castaway doesn’t have any natural reef or coral heads, so Disney has sunk a submarine, giant anchors, massive clay vases and even a statue of Mickey Mouse to create interest and habitat for a colourful array of tropical fish.
Back on the ship my daughter and I repeatedly ride the AquaDuck, the only watercoaster at sea. It’s big on thrills, and views, because its see-through flume juts out from the ship at deck 14 before rollicking down to ring suspended above deck 11.
Disney’s hit the perfect family cruising balance.
You want to spend time with your kids at the shows, by the pools, on the AquaDuck, at the ports of call and in the family restaurants.
Our favourite turned out to be Animator’s Palate where characters you draw on your placemat are quickly animated with the magic of Disney (and ultra-powerful software) and integrated into cartoons with Mickey Mouse that are shown on the restaurant's big screens as you finish your meal.
When it comes to adult time there’s no shortage of 18-plus cafes, restaurants, pools and nightclubs.
And the kids should be happy to go to the kids' clubs, which are divided in three – It’s a Small World for infants and toddlers, Oceaneers for ages 4 to 12 and Vive for teens.
Our daughter, who often rolls her eyes at kids’ clubs as lame, loved the Disney version for its kickin’ video games, interactive tables and floors, magic shows, cooking classes and, of course, Disney movies.
She lounged in a beanbag at the club and watched Princess and the Frog while my wife and I dined top deck in the elegant French-inspired Remy, considered the finest restaurant on the high seas.