Disney Cruise Line Disney Wonder Review
While more expensive than its competitors, Disney's second-oldest ship delivers a quality cruise for families.
First setting sail in 1999, the Disney Wonder—and sister ship the Disney Magic—is a modestly sized throwback to the golden era of steamship travel. With its two bright red funnels (one just for show), the ship carries a wealth of design elements in the art nouveau style that gave our voyage an element of class and sophistication.
But the Disney Wonder is geared to the family demographic, and although there are appealing adults-only areas of the ship from which one can escape the ankle-biters, on a typical cruise, the Disney Wonder travels with upwards of 1,000 kids. We were intrigued to see how well Disney manages to balance the needs and expectations of such a diverse crowd, especially as other cruise lines have invested heavily over the last decade to court the very same family market.
About Our Cruise
Overall, we really enjoyed our cruise on the Disney Wonder. Since arriving on the scene in 1998 Disney Cruise Line has polished its game to the point that—with a four-ship fleet—it has emerged as a formidable competitor to the bigger cruise names. Cabins are spacious by industry standards and boast the smart split-bathroom concept that works like a dream for families; free Wave Phones for communicating ship-wide are a great addition as well. The cabins also have a lot more design flair than is typical in the industry, guided by Disney Wonder’s overarching art nouveau décor motif.
Mealtime was usually rewarding, with varied menus that integrate a welcome measure of vegetables and seafood along with more traditional favorites (there were always safe options for fussier stomachs). Only a few dishes missed the mark, a better batting average than most of the major cruise lines. And the specialty restaurant Palo is a treat for parents looking to have a night out on the town, leaving kids to the reliable staff of “camp” counselors. The ship’s gentle family ambience can be enchanting, stoked by a well-chosen crew that seems to genuinely enjoy the company of children; their interactions were cheerful and unforced, with servers entertaining families with magic tricks and mind-bending puzzles. However, some crewmembers seemed a bit green, and attention to detail was not always apparent; we suspect this was due in part to recent expansion that added the Disney Fantasy to the fleet.
Shows in the Walt Disney Theatre were solid, though aimed squarely at the family audience. But in a couple lounges we found PG-rated entertainment that, while not quite “adult,” was still of high quality. We loved seeing movies in the Buena Vista Theatre, one of the best screening rooms at sea. In service of Disney Wonder’s core demographic, it’s worth noting a few things the ship does not have: There’s no casino (though bingo is ever-present), no real disco, no indoor bar designated for smokers, and no library (though magazines were available at Cove Café).
Disney doesn’t let you forget who’s running the show: From the wake-up calls that use a recorded greeting from Mickey Mouse, to the ship’s horns, which blare a discordant version of the seven-note melody from “When You Wish Upon a Star” at sail-away, the company’s branding is pervasive. In common areas of the ship, you’ll be humming along to “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” and “Some Day My Prince Will Come” while an autograph session with Disney princesses commences with the kind of fanfare usually accorded to elder statesmen. For some, this will be a welcome atmosphere; others may chafe. In the end, the passenger make-up is self-selecting and it involves a large percentage of newbie cruisers who are along for the Disney ride, not necessarily for the cruise experience or any particular destination. Veteran cruisers may be put off by the number of novice travelers and their casual attire.
Catering to a Crowd
An important issue should be noted when considering a cruise on the Disney Wonder. When this ship (and sister Disney Magic) was conceived, Disney execs estimated that passenger makeup would be 60 percent families, 40 percent couples. Whether that was an incredibly optimistic projection or a whirl through Fantasyland, we can’t say, but we estimate that couples traveling without children probably made up less than 5 percent of the passengers on our cruise.
If Disney Wonder were occupied at only two to a cabin, it would offer a relatively average passenger space ratio. But most cabins sail with three to five sleeping in them, and with that many kids sharing rooms the Disney Wonder is a lot more crowded than other ships of this size. The throngs come in waves—there were times when we enjoyed the 268-seat Buena Vista Theatre in the company of barely a dozen others or had the Cadillac Lounge to ourselves; but at the Beach Blanket Buffet, Mickey’s Childrens’ Pool and Goofy’s Family Pool, the congestion can be overwhelming. And our messy disembarkation was a pile-on.
To Disney’s credit, the adults-only areas, including the Quiet Cove pool and Outlook Bar, were never crowded on our sailing. And this brings us to a key asset of a cruise on the Disney Wonder: Despite the wide range of ages being catered to, the Mouse manages to keep things humming smoothly for all. To be sure, the Disney Wonder is not a good cruise for anyone allergic to lifesize cartoon characters or princess sightings, and it would be anathema to those who don’t enjoy the presence of kids or need a casino close by. But, relative to the competition, the Disney Wonder delivered a high-quality, professional cruise experience.
One other consideration worth highlighting is that the Disney Wonder isn’t cheap. Leaving out high-end luxury cruise lines, similar itineraries on the major lines almost always cost less than sailing with Disney, especially during summer and school holidays. Several other companies deliver a quality family product—sans Mickey and Minnie—and their cruises are usually priced at least 25 percent less.
Uncle Walt can charge a premium because there’s a sizable herd that will pay extra for the Disney treatment. But for families considering a cruise vacation, if itinerary and price are not a consideration, the Disney Wonder delivers the goods. And we know a few adults without children who might also find the Disney Wonder an enchanting experience.
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