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Copyright © 1995-2001 
Linda Coffman


Disney Wonder February 1-4, 2001
"Film Festival at Sea"

by Scott Abrahams

The Disney Wonder Feb. 1-4, 2001. Port Canaveral to Nassau and Disney’s Castaway Cay.

THIS WAS an extra-special cruise to me — not so much for the cruise, which was just fine, but for the theme of the cruise.

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 Siskel’s death in February 1999. The cruise was advertised only at the end of the show; only dedicated viewers knew it was available. The show’s 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 Wonder’s layout and design is as good as any other large (it’s 85,000 tons) or mega ship. (My favorite cruise ships are Carnival’s. I have also cruised with Princess and Holland America in recent years.) The ship’s theme rooms, decor and colors reminded me most of Carnival’s 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 ‘n’ Dale, etc. In keeping with the ship’s 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 — 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 didn’t 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, Disney’s 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 RCL’s 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 you’re 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 screenings.

THE FIRST film had an odd title, The Dish, and was from Australia. Oh well, it’s 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 wasn’t 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 he’s 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 don’t want to spoil anything, but let’s just say our band of sophisticated moviegoers/cruisers liked The Dish so much, we applauded at the end. It’s 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 Disney’s three-dining-room rotation, we all went to Triton’s the first night. This is the "formal’’ 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, Triton’s has an under-the-sea motif and was quite pretty. I had a steak, which wasn’t that special. In fact, I found the Disney dining-room food no better than any other cruise ship’s 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 Triton’s 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 café was adjacent. If Disney were to put in a casino, this would be the place, it seems to me.

ONE DESIGN feature about this area, Deck 3: On most ships this is the deck where you can’t get there from here — 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 Triton’s, letting you walk the length of the deck back to the Parrot Cay restaurant without confusion. It’s 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 Caribbean’s 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 wouldn’t work, so the group decided to go to the main showroom to see a substitute film, The Emperor’s New Groove. THAT projector wouldn’t 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 I’m told the 30 or so people who showed up had a nice time with Ebert and Roeper.

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 isn’t 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 Animator’s 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 also!

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 Disney’s 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 island’s 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 weren’t 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.

DISNEY’S 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, Goofy’s 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 it’s 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. Ahhh.

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 film’s distributor to lend it to our group. This film is so new it won’t be out for quite awhile, maybe not until the fall of 2001. It’s quite intense, about a contemporary couple’s 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 viewer’s imagination. I wouldn’t 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 director’s 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 ship’s 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 theater’s 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 group’s 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 décor. 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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