On-Site: Sailing With "The Mouse" in Alaska on the Disney Wonder


The top deck onboard the Disney Wonder as it cruises through Vancouver. // (c) 2011 Susan J. Young

Editor’s Note: Our cruise editor, Susan Young, was onboard Disney Wonder for a weeklong Alaska sailing earlier this month. Here’s her firsthand report on the ship, itinerary and the experience of sailing with Mickey Mouse and friends.

As Disney Wonder navigated closer to the Sawyer Glacier at the end of Tracy Arm in Alaska last week, another major line’s ship passed by it, headed the other way. Typically, passengers on passing ships wave at each other.

But instead, two men on the other line’s ship yelled, “We love Mickey!” in booming voices and many other passengers on that ship’s top deck clapped and cheered en masse as the Disney Wonder sailed by. Clearly, that action demonstrated the power of the Disney brand.

And now Disney is in Alaska for its first summer season. So, what’s the experience like from the guest’s perspective? I sailed on Disney Wonder’s seven-night Alaska itinerary in late May to find out. Throughout the voyage, I spoke with guests, crew and Disney management.  My “on location” perspective is designed to help agents who want to know about the experience of sailing with “The Mouse” in Alaska. 

Disney’s Inside Passage itinerary is fairly typical, with two full days at sea, a day sailing through Tracy Arm, and port calls at Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan.  But, I’ve sailed on Disney Cruise Line twice before – most recently on Disney Dream, and previously on Disney Magic – so I knew from the start that this wouldn’t be just another typical Alaska cruise. And it wasn’t.

Pre-Cruise Stay

I usually travel alone, even on week-long cruises, as I often have to work while at sea. But on this cruise I opted to take a bit of vacation and took along Nancy, a friend and former neighbor, who was dying to see Alaska for the first time.  It’s always nice to experience a cruise product and destination through the eyes of someone to whom it’s fresh and new.

Arriving separately on flights from different East Coast cities, we met up at the Delta Sky Club at LAX (where I arrived first and spotted Al Pacino close up!). Then, we took a flight from LAX to Vancouver together.  Disney had arranged accommodations for us at one of its pre-cruise properties, the Fairmont Vancouver Airport Hotel.

It’s always a good feeling to come in the night before, just because flights can cancel or have delays.  And, at times, it’s the only way to make the schedules work if you’re flying to Alaska from the East Coast.

Say what you will about the pros and cons of sailing from either Seattle or Vancouver but the international arrivals area at Vancouver is exceptional in many ways – moving sidewalks and escalators, a clean and modern facility, good signage for visitors, and very friendly folks on all fronts including those in immigration.

For those on a pre-cruise stay with Disney at the Fairmont Vancouver Airport, there’s no need to grab a cab or board a shuttle bus. Tell clients to just head for the vicinity of the American Airlines ticket counter.

Adjacent to that ticketing area is an elevator; guests just take it up one floor to the hotel entrance walkway that extends over the top of the ticketing area. If your clients need help with their bags, a hotel bellman is just outside at the curb. We opted to keep our wheeled luggage with us, though, and at check-in, left it for the bellman to deliver from there.

The accommodations – even standard ones – at this upscale property are quite deluxe. The room was spacious with two queen beds, a large desk and a horizontal armoire with lighting that is controlled from the phone. Floor-to-ceiling windows provide great views of the airport and one of its runways. The room has a neat telescope so that aviation buffs can watch the planes take off and land.

We particularly liked the bathroom, which has slatted doors that slide open at the entry, as well as slatted doors above the bathtub. If they’re open, one can have a bath and enjoy the natural light. There is a separate large shower and two sinks and a separate toilet closet. 

For dinner, the hotel has a comfortable and welcoming restaurant and an adjacent lounge area. We opted for lighter fare – soup and appetizers— at the lounge. A huge stone fireplace, comfortable seating and more runway views await your clients who dine here.

The food was tasty, but the bill for one bowl of soup, two appetizers and two glasses of wine – split between two people – came to just under $90 with tax and tip. For a bit more affordable dining, clients might try several  “before security” venues open to the general public in the international terminal.      

Day 1 – Embarkation Day, Disney Wonder

At the pre-cruise hotel check-in we were handed a letter explaining the time of our departure in the morning. It also explained when the luggage goes out in the morning. So, at the appointed time, we meandered down to the check-in welcome desk. We were checked off the list and escorted downstairs to a modern motorcoach for the half-hour trip to the downtown cruise pier.

The coach driver amusingly told guests he was “putting on a Disney-something video” and he smiled. Sure enough, soon Mickey Mouse and comrades appeared on the overhead monitors and explained what would happen when we arrived at the cruise terminal.

After the video finished, the driver gave a bit of a guided tour, talking about Vancouver and pointing out interesting sites that we passed before dropping us at the Canada Place cruise terminal, known for its white canvas-like roof – the design resembles myriad ship sails.

Disney sails on Tuesday and our ship was the only one in port. We headed for check-in at about 11:30 a.m. and eager Disney cruisers were already on site. Despite a burgeoning crowd, the process moved along smoothly. 

Guests received a numbered boarding card, which controlled the timing of entry to the check-in desk, and then ultimately to the ship. As several numbers were called, the line also made a call for Castaway Cay members, who were handled at adjacent desks. 

Agents should advise clients to use Disney’s online check-in before they arrive at the pier. It saves a lot of time. We just provided the credit card we’d listed online, presented our passports, and soon we had our key cards and were off to the next  pre-ship “waiting” area.

While we waited, Mickey Mouse—and later Minnie Mouse— appeared to the delight of the crowd. Families, single adults traveling together and couples lined up in droves to pose with the celebrity characters. Yes, of course, we couldn’t resist.

Soon we were headed onboard. While all cruise lines warmly greet guests as they board, Disney goes a step further. It’s easy to believe you’re truly a VIP when the staff announces to the claps and cheers of other staffers in the atrium: “Let’s give a warm welcome to the Smith family!”

In our case, we heard in a rousing voice announcement: “And now let’s welcome Susan and Nancy to the Disney Wonder!” I bowed and acted a bit silly, a sign that cruisers really do get caught up in the fantasy of Disney. 

First Impressions

My first impression was that Disney Wonder’s atrium is modest yet classy in design. You won’t find neon or garish appointments. It’s more an Art Nouveau look.  A small bronze Little Mermaid statue graces the entrance to Triton’s, one of the ship’s three main dining rooms.  The ceiling is graced by a massive, colorful Dale Chihuly-designed glass artwork.

Opposite the statue, elevators zoom up and down. Guest Services is in one corner, Port Adventures center in another.  Windows are huge port holes, a nice touch in retaining a classic nautical feel throughout the ship.

Disney Wonder, at 83,000 tons is a mid-size cruise ship given the mega-ships that are launching today at two or more times that size. Yet, this ship is a great choice for families who want to limit the number of steps and not wear out the kids simply trekking to dinner or the gathering point for shore trips. 

Adults, too, appreciate that everything is relatively close, and yet the ship has plenty of activity venues.

First priority after embarkation? Food! We headed for the robust buffet lunch at Parrot Cay. Guests also may enjoy the Beach Blanket Buffet if they so choose. The kids went wild when Goofy ambled into Parrot Cay; the adults grabbed their cameras and snapped away. It was just the start of the fantasy experience that is Disney.

After lunch, we headed for our stateroom, a deluxe balcony cabin, #7042. It was centrally located and particularly convenient for access to the Cove Café, the Quiet Cove pool area, the spa, the Walt Disney Theater and the Route 66 area. 

As we opened the door to our stateroom, we noticed a lovely red sack-like tote for Disney Vacation Club members; it was complimentary and left on the bed along with our daily program and other written information. A chilled bottle of champagne, cheese, crackers and fruit also awaited us. And since we booked our shore excursions in advance, the tickets were placed in an envelope on the desk.

One plus for this stateroom is that it’s spacious. You don’t feel as though you’re tripping over the other person in the cabin. The long couch can double, if needed, as a third berth, and yet it also provides comfortable seating for two or three people.  The table slides up and down for use as a dining or coffee table.

The stateroom desk has a cushioned stool and large mirror. This area also has a flat-screen TV which can be turned to face either the living or bed areas. A curtain can be pulled between those areas, so an early riser can enjoy the living room and scenic views, yet not disturb the other person still sleeping.

Drawer space in the desk area is excellent. My friend took those drawers for her clothes, while I took the closet shelves as well as shelves in a trunk-like tall armoire, a nice piece that continues the classic nautical feel of the ship.

There is also enough hanging space in the closet for two people who bring a modest amount of clothes. One side of the closet accommodates long dresses, coats and pants, and the other works for shirts and other shorter garments. 

A nice touch? The closet’s personal safe is roomy. It easily accommodated my laptop computer as well as several cell phones, wallets and other items.

We really liked the Disney Wonder’s split bathroom concept. One person can be in one bath that has a sink and toilet while the other is using the second bath with a sink and shower/tub.   It’s a great concept for families with children as well as for spouses or friends traveling together who like to have their “space.”

This stateroom had a nice balcony with two blue chairs and a small table. Personally, I believe an Alaska cruise is best experienced with a balcony, particularly if clients like to take photos.  We continually ran in and out once we spotted the “blow” of a whale or noticed an eagle soaring nearby.

We asked our stateroom to split the bed into two singles, which was done promptly while we attended the “Let the Magic Begin” show in the Walt Disney theater and then dined at Palo, the line’s alternative restaurant for adults only.

Located high atop the ship, Palo specializes in northern Italian cuisine. Reservations are essential.

As far as alternative restaurants go, Palo is a bargain at $20 per person, given the atmosphere, cuisine and high level of service. Our waiter Marco was adept not only at suggesting certain choices but also at explaining how each dish was prepared.

Diners chomp on savory breads while perusing the wine list; Palo has an extensive selection of wines by the glass, many of which are very affordable.  Next, guests feast their eyes on a cold antipasto cart, which displays an array of savory Italian treats.

From the cart, Marco served us several different types of marinated olives, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Prosciutto, Brasaola (air-dried, salted beef) and sun dried tomatoes, as well as a specialty dip and olive oil.

Palo has a diverse menu of starters including a wide range of pizzas—everything from Ai Gamberi, with tomato sauce, mozzarella, shrimp and asparagus to Quattro Formaggi or four cheeses. We opted to pass on the pizza, though, as the menu seemed quite robust. 

For our starters we selected two dishes to share—the Sicilian Pesto Marinated Grilled Shrimp and the Fritto Misto di Pesce con Olive all’ Ascolana, or deep fried calamari, scallops and mussels with lemon and deep-fried green olives.  The calamari was tender and the shrimp perfectly cooked.

For our main course, I tried the Branzino in Cartoccio, which is sea bass with spaghetti vegetables and a ginger orange glaze. It was delicate, expertly prepared and impeccably presented. My friend Nancy opted for the Grilled Sea Scallops with Borlotti Beans and Pancetta. I tasted one scallop, which was cooked just right and quite savory. Marco brought us a third fish entrée to sample, “just as a little something extra,” he said.

For dessert, we ordered something chocolate, and, of course, Marco brought us one tiramisu to sample, because he said,” This is an Italian restaurant and you can’t go away without trying tiramisu.” I’m not a big fan of the sweet treat, but I have to admit it was quite tasty.

Throughout our cruise, other guests raved about the food and service at Palo.  Check out the photos of some of our dishes at Palo’s in the slide show below.

Stay tuned for the next story about my voyage on Disney Wonder, when I’ll discuss the first day at sea and the day sailing through the narrow fjord that is Tracy Arm.

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