The Disney Wonder Feb. 1-4, 2001. Port
Canaveral to Nassau and Disneyís Castaway Cay.
THIS WAS an extra-special cruise to me
ó not so much for the cruise, which was just fine, but for the theme of the
THE CRUISE was a "Film Festival
at Sea" with TV movie critics Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper. This is the
same TV show that featured Gene Siskel and Ebert until Siskelís death in
February 1999. The cruise was advertised only at the end of the show; only
dedicated viewers knew it was available. The showís producer limited the
cruise group to 150, so I feel lucky to have been aboard.
THE SHIP was impressive and beautiful.
I have been on 20 or so different ships during the past 20 years, and I think
the Wonderís layout and design is as good as any other large (itís 85,000
tons) or mega ship. (My favorite cruise ships are Carnivalís. I have also
cruised with Princess and Holland America in recent years.) The shipís theme
rooms, decor and colors reminded me most of Carnivalís Fun Ships without the
neon. Fortunately, there were no little Mickey Mouses embedded into the
carpeting every five feet as I feared, but there were plenty of opportunities
to have your picture taken with Mickey and Minnie, Chip Ďní Dale, etc. In
keeping with the shipís Art Deco exterior, the interior, while having
Carnival-type touches, emphasized a retro fine-hotel ambience and elegance. It
had the right touch of adult and family-oriented nightspots. There are three
pools up top ó two for families and the kiddies, and one for adults only.
BECAUSE OF the time of year, school
was in session and so most of the kids were preschoolers. They were fairly
easy to avoid if you watched where you were walking and stayed to the
designated adult areas. Hey, I like kids well enough. I just didnít want to
be swarmed by them!
I DROVE to the ship. Parking at Port
Canaveral was a snap, but you should be prepared to pay $7.00 a day before you
can park. I paid $21, easily found a spot and walked across the street and
into the terminal. Meanwhile, Disneyís buses from Orlando were unloading
hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of folks in the adjacent bus area.
CHECK-IN was easy, and soon I was in
my cabin to find my film-festival paraphernalia waiting. This was an el-cheapo
inside cabin, but it was of a good size and even had a small bathtub. (This is
Disney. El-cheapo on Disney is still pricey.) The cabin also had a little
fridge, cable TV, room safe: the usual stuff. Also waiting for me was a gift
box of sausage, cheese, crackers and snacks from Disney. No utensils, though,
with which to cut the cheese or the sausage. But the chocolate bar was some
European import, and it was delicious. The lunch buffet on the upper deck was
delicious also. In fact, it was some of best topside buffet food I have had on
any ship. I decided this cruise was going to be a quality experience.
THE DISNEY Wonder left Port Canaveral
promptly at 5 p.m. with the Carnival Fantasy and RCLís Sovereign of the
Seas. Older kids and dads were already playing basketball inside the spacious,
netted, outdoor recreation area at the bow. As the ship glided down the
channel past restaurants, port businesses and some waving people, I savored
that wonderful anticipation of a cruise getting underway. Soon, I remembered
that our first film was showing at 5:30 p.m. Reluctantly, I left topside. But,
I was eager to see what this film festival at sea was going to be all about,
and to meet my fellow moviegoers/cruisers.
OUR FILM group
had 150 people out of 2,600 souls aboard (no children.) If youíre going
to watch films on a ship, the Disney Wonder is the place to do it. (The Disney
Magic is a sister ship and has a similar theater.) The Buena Vista Theater on
the Wonder was like a modern, stadium-seating cinema anywhere else with a wide
screen and about 240 seats. It had nice sound, too, and a beautiful curtain
and small stage in front of the screen where Ebert and Roeper introduced each
film and led a discussion afterward. During the cruise, the ship showed quite
a few current films for the shipboard population in addition to our private
THE FIRST film had an odd title, The
Dish, and was from Australia. Oh well, itís a film festival, right? You see
all sorts of weird, different stuff at film festival. Never having attended a
film festival, much less one at sea, I wasnít sure what to expect.
THE PLUSH red seats in the theatre
were comfortable. After a few moments, Roger Ebert cheerfully called out to
someone behind me. I turned around, and there was this TV guy I had been
watching for years, looking and sounding pretty like he does on TV, except
heís on a cruise and dressed pretty casually. Smart guy. This was shaping up
to be fun already.
EBERT AND Richard Roeper introduced
themselves, talked a little about The Dish and let the film roll. I donít
want to spoil anything, but letís just say our band of sophisticated
moviegoers/cruisers liked The Dish so much, we applauded at the end. Itís a
warm-hearted comedy-drama about the first moon landing in 1969 and the radio
dish in rural Australia that played an unexpectedly crucial role in the event.
It was funny and genuinely moving if a little simplistic. The Dish opened
around the country on a few screens in April-May 2001. I highly recommend it,
even on video. In fact, of the three new movies we saw, The Dish was the one
most people would enjoy the most. The other two were darkly intense,
literary-type films that I would not classify as fun.
OUR GROUP discussed The Dish, and I
soon realized that many of these people knew a lot more about the literature
and techniques of filmmaking than I did. I felt like I was back in a college
classroom. I listened and learned, and after 30 minutes of discussion, the
group broke up. Having just boarded this gorgeous ship a few hours before, we
had immediately seen a genuinely entertaining movie, and now it was time for
our first dinner! Whoa! Slow down! But already the trip seemed to promise
great things. Twenty-four hours earlier, I had been busy at work. What a
difference a day makes!
EVERYONE IN the film group had second
seating at 8:30. Under Disneyís three-dining-room rotation, we all went to
Tritonís the first night. This is the "formalíí dining room, and I
was none too pleased about dressing up the first night. As most of you know,
formal night is not usually the first night of a cruise. Anyway, Tritonís
has an under-the-sea motif and was quite pretty. I had a steak, which wasnít
that special. In fact, I found the Disney dining-room food no better than any
other cruise shipís dining-room food. (I would have been just as happy back
up at the topside buffet.) Toward the end of the meal, Roger Ebert and Richard
Roeper came around and introduced themselves, a nice touch. Our table for
eight had seven diners, all film fans in one way or another. Some had never on
a cruise before.
THE FILM schedule and the shortness of
the cruise made it difficult to do everything. The Route 66
adult-entertainment area had a fancy piano bar, a rock and roll piano bar with
dueling hotshot male pianists, and a dance club with live music and
cruise-ship games. The area was all quite adequate and typical of such rooms
you see on other cruise ships. My favorite bar was the Promenade Lounge just
behind Tritonís restaurant on Deck 3. This was a classy, dark, big-city
hotel-type bar that was not in the "adult" section per se. It also
included an area for a small combo to entertain. The Internet cafť was
adjacent. If Disney were to put in a casino, this would be the place, it seems
ONE DESIGN feature about this area,
Deck 3: On most ships this is the deck where you canít get there from here
ó the center dining room blocks your way. You have to walk up a deck, over
the dining room, and then back down again to get to the rear dining room.
Disney has designed this deck so that there is a promenade around one side of
Tritonís, letting you walk the length of the deck back to the Parrot Cay
restaurant without confusion. Itís a nice touch.
DAY TWO, a Friday, found us docked
with about six other ships at the piers in Nassau. The weather in January had
been miserable, so we were told, but we had partly sunny skies for our
day/night at the pier. The weather in the Bahamas in January or February is
iffy. I would never go at that time to the Bahamas, except maybe for this film
cruise. It is the height of winter after all, and you do get wintry weather
even in the Bahamas. One highlight to me was watching the brand-new Explorer
of the Seas park next to us. This is Royal Caribbeanís 142,000-ton monster,
a sister ship to the 142,000-ton Voyager of the Seas. Explorer towered above
our sizeable ship by two or three more decks.
ROGER RABBIT, the 1988 cartoon-live
action film, was scheduled for 10:30 a.m. The projector wouldnít work, so
the group decided to go to the main showroom to see a substitute film, The
Emperorís New Groove. THAT projector wouldnít work either, and so the
group retired to the empty Cadillac piano bar to talk with our two hosts. I
missed this entire episode, having stayed up on deck to get some sun, but
Iím told the 30 or so people who showed up had a nice time with Ebert and
SOON, 3 p.m. arrived and it was time
for another film. The projector was fixed and we sat down to watch The Claim.
This is a western loosely based on a work of literature, The Mayor of
Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy. The plot about a mayor and his town in Victorian
England has been transferred to gold-rush Northern California at about the
same year, around 1867. The Claim is a challenging film to enjoy --- you have
to work at understanding who the characters are and why they are relating to
each other the way they do. The story takes awhile to figure out because the
filmmakers plunge you into the action with little exposition. Disney would
never show this type of film to the casual filmgoer as part of the usual
cruise package. The film is just too complex, and the brief scene with the
horse on fire just isnít Disney! Our group spent an hour discussing the
plot, the characters and the symbolism. Some people thought it ended well but
was too difficult to get through. I would like to see it again.
ONCE AGAIN, it was time to break for
freshening up and dinner at 8:30, tonight in the Animatorís Palate. This is
the dining room done up in black-and-white images around the walls, with the
servers also wearing black-and-white vests and black trousers. Even the chairs
are black and white. The cartoon-type images gradually become colored as
dinner moved through its courses. (The walls around you are actually metal
mesh, which hide lights inside. The glowing lights reveal the space behind the
apparently solid wall.) The waiters leave, there is a song and dance number as
they return, and their black-and-white vests have magically turned into colors
SOME PEOPLE were out on the town for
Friday night and not all of my table companions were present because the ship
was still docked in Nassau. That night, there was a deck party with a stage
and spotlighting set up behind one of the funnels. This area is like the live,
outdoor shows Disney stages at Pleasure Island at Disney World. It was called
a "Millennium Deck Party" with dancing under the stars with the
Charles Marshall band from 10 p.m. to midnight. They were pretty good, and the
crowd was good but not huge. The Fruit and Dessert Buffet offered competition
from 11 p.m. to midnight. Being a longtime Carnival veteran, I peered over at
the Fantasy next door, and those folks were having a Nassau deck party as
well. The Explorer of the Seas had already left.
DAY THREE of this all-too-short cruise
dawned for me about 10 a.m., and we were already at Disneyís private island,
Castaway Cay. The sky was overcast and ugly --- in fact, it was drizzling. The
cruise director on the PA system said the weather would clear by noon, but I
was dubious. Standing at the rail in the mist, I could see people leaving the
ship and taking the five or six minute walk to the islandís main entrance.
Disney has dredged an area and built a pier so the ship can dock, unlike other
cruise ships at other private islands that anchor off shore and use tenders to
ferry folks to land. Nevertheless, the walk is long enough that Disney has a
tram available for those who want to ride. Just like at a theme park! What
would this cruise be without a Disney tram??? Some dredging work was under way
near the ship, and the earthmover and bulldozer noises detracted from the
island ambience. It looked to me as though the manmade jetties werenít
keeping the silt out of the manmade harbor. Maybe it was just routine
maintenance. As I mulled, the weather started to clear. I joined the long line
downstairs on the debarkation deck, got through security in 10 or 12 minutes
and found a tram waiting outside.
DISNEYíS PRIVATE island, like the
other private cruise-line islands, is an idyllic spot. It has outdoor eating
areas, shopping, bandstands, bars, a post office, scenic overlooks for taking
photos, float and snorkel rentals, Goofyís sand lot for volleyball.
Highlights are a family beach, a teen beach and an adults-only beach. The
adults-only beach requires a bit of dedication to get to. It is another tram
ride away in distance, down an abandoned airstrip. Supposedly this
broken-asphalt airstrip was used for drug smuggling at one point. You can walk
the airstrip to the adult beach if you want, but itís a good mile or so. I
waited 15 minutes or so for the next tram, grabbed a seat, waited another five
or six minutes for the tram to collect some riders, and we went clunking down
the middle of the airstrip with green, low-lying island vegetation all around.
The adults-only beach area is well worth the trip. It has its own bar area and
some more rentals and chaise lounges on the sand. The waves lapped gently on
shore, and the breeze whispered through some shady pines behind the beach. The
ship was out of sight, the kids were out of sight, and the ambience was
peaceful and laid back. This was not Disney so much as it was the Bahamas.
UNFORTUNATELY, TIME was running short.
I left the beach, again waited for a tram, again waited for it to collect some
riders, again clunked back down the airstrip, again walked back through the
main part of Castaway Cay (the grand tour), made the long walk back to the
pier (to heck with the tram), again went through security and walked up into
the ship. Not a convenient journey, but by cutting short my island stay I made
it OK. The day was winding down anyway. The weather turned out nicely. What a
great afternoon it was.
IT WAS soon 3 p.m. and time for
another movie! I could get used to this! Our third and last film of the cruise
was In the Bedroom, which despite the title was not some sort of sex farce. In
fact, it was brand-new film shown for the first time a few weeks earlier at
the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. Roger Ebert told us a story about how he
persuaded the filmís distributor to lend it to our group. This film is so
new it wonít be out for quite awhile, maybe not until the fall of 2001.
Itís quite intense, about a contemporary coupleís struggle to deal with
tragedy after the justice system disappoints them. Once again, I was intrigued
by the whole thing. It was suspenseful and smart -- a film that starts out
being about one thing and ends up being about another. We had another spirited
discussion about what it all meant, including a discussion about what is going
to happen to the characters. There is a resolution to the events of the film,
so it does have a real ending, but that resolution is going to have
consequences that are left up to the viewerís imagination. I wouldnít be
surprised if In The Bedroom comes out under a different title, however. It
stars Sissy Spacek, Marissa Tomei and Tom Wilkinson and may be promoted as
having Academy Award potential. We shall see.
AFTER THE discussion, we gathered for
a group photo, which was a great keepsake. We're all holding our thumbs up as
Ebert and Roeper do on the TV show, with Ebert and Roeper front and center on
their directorís chairs. A fun, casual group with lots of smart people.
NEXT UP was a live show in the Walt
Disney Theatre. This was my first real opportunity to see a complete shipís
show, which had been difficult to get to before because of the film schedule.
One show about Hercules I started to go to earlier in the cruise was so silly
and stilted that I left. This show, "Disney Dreams," was more
interesting although it had some of the same type of stilted dialogue you hear
in theme-park shows. It was live action and used filmed images. Anyway,
according to the playbill, it is a "spectacular fantasy about a little
girl who learns the power of her dreams. With the help of Peter Pan, she
learns that with a little Faith, Trust, and Pixie Dust you can make your own
magic." One nice moment showed a cartoon Peter Pan sprinkling pixie dust
on a movie image of the ship on the theaterís screen. The ship in the movie
started to glow with sparkling lights just as the same sparkling lights for
real swept across the ceiling of the theater. It was a fun moment of movie
magic and theater magic.
A MOVIE, a show, and now on to dinner
after a day at the beach. Whew! Too much to do! Our film groupís last dinner
was in Parrot Cay, a Caribbean-theme restaurant that was like something out of
Jimmy Buffet. Colorful pictures of parrots greeted you at the entrance in a
hallway decorated with a tropical mural. The restaurant itself had similar dťcor.
As before, our servers rotated with us to this restaurant. Their outfits were
tropical to reflect the theme of the evening. As in the other two restaurants
the entree I had wasn't truly outstanding in any way, but the dinner was
satisfying. The servers danced to Hot, Hot, Hot. Much film was consumed as we
said our good-byes for now. This busy day ended for me with a little
barhopping in the Route 66 area.
UNFORTUNATELY, TIME again was running
short. This cruise had entered the valley of despair known as packing up to go
home. I would much rather have seen another film.
SUNDAY MORNING, our group gathered for
breakfast, again in Parrot Cay. Roger Ebert and his family were at a nearby
table, and my tablemates and I walked over to wish them a safe trip back to
Illinois. We had had a good time and told them so. Disembarkation was smooth.
It was great meeting Ebert, Richard Roeper and my tablemates Janis and Donna
from Staten Island, and Sudie and her husband from Houston.
EBERT AND ROEPER may make this cruise
an annual event. They and their producer indicated they would like to do it
again, possibly every February. I hope they do. Seeing great movies on a great
ship with great travel companions makes for a wonderful vacation. Until then,
sadly, the balcony cabin is closed.
Scott Abrahams ~ "Life is a cruise, so let's hit the Lido Deck now!"
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