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Aug 25, 2002: My Wife the Experience Design Critic

WARNING: narcissism ahead

Happy 50th anniversary, Ernie and Arline Rosenfeld!

Mom and Dad took two generations of progeny on a three night Disney cruise, from which Mary Jean and I just returned this evening. It was great to reconnect with the family, all of whom are out east, just a little too far from Ann Arbor.

But the cruise itself was a bit weird. Sailing with The Mouse isn't for everyone, and presents an interesting study in experience design. I'll let Mary Jean take over Bloug for now and play ethnographer; here are her notes:

Mary Jean Babic's Notes from a Disney Cruise

The corporate product was ubiquitous. It began as soon as we got on the bus that took us from the Orlando airport to Port Canaveral. No fewer than twelve TVs hung from the ceiling of the bus, showing "Alice in Wonderland." (I must say I enjoyed the tea-party scene with the Mad Hatter, celebrating his unbirthday.) On the ship, "your Disney friends" were on parade in the lobby every evening. This was a complete mob scene, as kids and more than a few adults screamed to get their photos taken with Snow White or Goofy. The kids' pool on Deck 9 had a big Mickey Mouse face painted on the bottom, and the two round black ears were hot tubs. The slide into the pool was held aloft by a gigantic white Mickey Mouse glove. The front of the ship was adorned, not with a barebreasted mermaid as a figurehead, but Donald Duck. As we set sail, the ship's foghorns sounded the first notes of "When You Wish Upon a Star." All of which is to be expected on a Disney cruise, I guess, but mouse sign kept popping up in the most intriguing places. The rim of the lampshade in our stateroom was stamped with tiny Mickey Mouse-head cutouts. The curtain over the balcony door had a subtle print of the same shape. Above the elevators, the floors were indicated by an arm tipped with, yet again, the fat white glove.

At Port Canaveral, we got off the bus and went into the terminal, a large, airy building decorated with blue and white swooshes that I suppose were meant to put one in a nautical frame of mind. This is where we checked in, and it was here that we saw the only Disney workers over the age of 30. Except for the never-seen captain, a cruise ship is the dominion of single, exuberant, international, overworked youth. I suppose those of a more sensible age are not as willing to, say, rouse a bunch of pool-sitters into a belly flop contest, but they're fine to stand behind a counter and check people in. They were made to wear the most unfortunate striped shirts. The men's were particularly bad. It had a sort of high collar, not quite a t-shirt and not quite a mock turtleneck, and short sleeves. They looked like the AARP branch of the Mouseketeers.

At this point we also received our "Key to the World," a credit-card thing that was the literal key to our room but more importantly the way to pay for all the stuff that's not included in the all-included price. This primarily meant booze and anything fun, like snorkeling or parasailing. This also meant, stingily, bottled water, which was a desirable commodity because the regular water tasted terrible. The friendly faced international youth staff were quite adroit at taking advantage of this situation. One afternoon, at the pool, Lou's brother Ed ordered a round of drinks. Our order included two beers, and the waitress told Ed that, well, he should just go ahead and buy two more beers because the fifth one was free, which was a much better deal. Ed said we didn't want five beers, only two. Well, with five he'd also get a bucket full of ice. Ed said a bucket of ice would be fine, but nothing more. Of course, when the bucket came, there were five bottles of beer in it, all charged to his key to the world.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. After checking in, we stepped through an enormous entrance shaped liked -- you guessed it -- a Mickey Mouse head, and onto the Disney Wonder, where we were invited, or rather, ordered to discover the magic. Before we even got off the gangway we were stopped and photographed. This creeped me out. Did they photograph everyone, as some sort of maniacal record keeping? Then I realized that they just probably hoped to sell us the photo later, which was the case. I wish we had refused. (Lou's brother Ethan told me later that when he and his family got on, a crew member asked them for their names so they could do a little cheer. Ethan responded, "Get away from us.")

The scene waiting for us in the lobby was hard to digest. Steel drum bands and dancing Minnie Mouses and screaming children assaulted me all at once. I think I may have let our a little whimper. We escaped to our stateroom, 6534, a number I would recite many times in the coming days. I will say I found the staterooms cozy. It had a small balcony, too, and this turned out to be one of my favorite places on the boat, because it was one of the few refuges from the constant looping soundtrack that piped throughout the ship at just about all hours. Before we left harbor, we experienced the single most unpleasant part of the cruise: the mandatory emergency drill. This began with an announcement piped directly into our *room*, the way other announcements would be over the next few days, and the fact that it was a nice British lady's voice doing the announcing made it no less like Big Brother. We all had to put on our lifejackets and meet at our assigned gathering point. Might I say that at this point it was 4 pm on a hot, humid afternoon in central Florida so we all stood on the deck, lifeboats swinging over our heads, in orange plastic lifejackets, sweating like hell. This was also the first time all the family members had seen each other since getting on the ship, so we're all hugging like idiots with these orange things smashed between us. They read off every room number and we had to shout here, and by the time it was done I needed a shower.

Food was marvelous, abundant, excessively available, truly included in the all-included price. Can't say a bad word about the food. In fact, my strategy was to anesthesize myself on food and drink and sea and water. But the problem on a Disney cruise is that they just can't let too much time go by without scheduled fun. For example, on Friday afternoon Lou and I were hanging in the adult pool, mellowing out, taking in the sun, and just as I was getting into a happy place, a perky staff member jumped up with a microphone and announced a belly flop contest. Atmo ruined, yet for some reason, we actually stayed and watched while Bubba, a fiftysomething paunchy guy from Virginia, squared off against shapely Sylvia from Switzerland. On Saturday night, we were having our final dinner in a dining room called Animators' Studio. When you walk in, everything is black and white, like an uncolored page in a coloring book. Then, over the course of the meal, the walls and ceilings and columns gradually turn to color. We all thought it was pretty cool, and we were enjoying the best family dinner groove of the whole trip ... but could Disney just let this nice moment unfold? No! At that point, some scene from some cartoon played on a screen, and the audio was blasting beyond all comprehension, grinding conversation to a halt. Then, the wait staff marched out for a little parade through the room to the tune of "It's a Small World," while a voice reminded us to acknowledge their great service with generous tips.

Ah, tipping: Like anything else Disney, this was highly organized and efficient. We were supplied with a worksheet to compute tips for the primary members of our "service team": Our server (Vicky from Canada), our assistant server (the adorable Laszlo from Hungary), the head server (Pierre from France, who only stopped by and asked how things were doing and didn't do half the work of Vicky and Laszlo), and our "stateroom host" (housekeeper), Dalton. The recommended amount for Vicky was $11, about $8.25 for Laszlo, $2.50 for Pierre, and $10.75 for Dalton. Times two, of course, for me and Lou. We were also provided with envelopes for each person's tips. As throughout the rest of the cruise, no cash was involved in this transaction. The night before we left, we went to the guest services desk with our tip worksheet (taking their suggestions, which we did, the tip total was $75), we charged the tips to our Key to the World, and then were given tickets with each amount. We put the appropriate ticket in each envelope, and presumably the staffers then cash the tickets in. See? It's all taken care of.

One of the most frustrating things was finding a quiet spot. Deck 4, for instance, was a lovely place to stand at the rail and look out over the ocean, but you couldn't do it without hearing "We Built This City on Rock 'n' Roll" or "Walkin' on Sunshine." In fact, I became quite familiar with the ship soundtrack, which was largely a 1980s extravaganza. A sample:

  • Voices Carry
  • Video Killed the Radio Star
  • Whip It
  • All That You Can't Leave Behind
  • Walk Like an Egyptian
  • Who Can It Be Now?

I know that cruise ships are huge, but the size is still astonishing to behold. We were told there were about 2,400 passengers on the trip, and easily several hundred staff. It's not a cheap trip by any means, but I wouldn't say the crowd was generally affluent. Rather, I got the impression that a lot of people saved up for a long time to take a trip like this, and this was considered quite a desirable vacation. Am I the only one who finds that sad? A guy we were chatting with at breakfast said that he "needs" vacations like this as a break from work. I found that after a trip like this, I get lonely for my home life and my routine.

Good things:

  • Sunsets on the Caribbean sea.
  • Some pretty great snorkeling in Nassau.
  • Food.
  • On Castaway Cay, the private island owned by Disney (oh yes), going on a banana boat ride with our ten-year-old niece, Aliza. This was a banana-shaped raft pulled by a motorboat, and it jumped across the water pretty awesomely.
  • The spa, a completely Mouse-free sanctuary with a steam room, sauna, aromatherapy and soothing music.
  • Lou had a great time parasailing.

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Comment: andrew (Aug 26, 2002)

The British voice in your room announcing daily fun sounds more like the 60's TV show The Prisoner than Big Brother. In fact much of this essay sounds like a vaction to the Prisoner's secretive Village, which was also highly branded.

Comment: Chiara (Aug 26, 2002)

Ah, the Black Rat Empire strikes again.

At least the sunsets and food were good. :)

Comment: Mike J. (Aug 26, 2002)

If I had kids in the 5-12 range, I might agree that this was a desirable family vacation. Otherwise, I'd quickly try to change the plans... I generally prefer more sedate vacations such as a nice lake or Hawaii.

Comment: Sally (Aug 28, 2002)

Uh, your comments sound right on point for somebody like me. I personally wouldn't like it. But I would have to ask -- why would you opt for a Mouse cruise in the first place if you didn't want all of that gacky stuff going on? Cruise lines are well-segmented by the type of experience they offer -- for instance, I'd never go on a Carnival cruise because I'd prefer relaxation over stimulation and Carnival offers "party ships." I'd say you would have a good idea up front of what to expect out of a Disney cruise, and I'd avoid it like the plague unless accompanied by numerous ADHD-crazed minors.

Comment: Lou (Aug 28, 2002)

Ahh, but it wasn't our choice... Beggars/family travel donees can't be choosers.

Comment: Dan. (Aug 31, 2003)

whaaa ..?

Comment: Sanford Santacroce (May 11, 2004)

Hi Mary Jean - I realize this email is about 2 years too late, but still, I never thought you would be the type to enjoy a Disney cruise either.

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