Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 23, 2017
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Family goes goofy at Sea

The Magic's seven-day Caribbean cruise gives kids all the fun of a Disney vacation without the theme park

It could have been any other cruise ship, lumbering away from port and out to sea. Well, not quite. The ship's horn bellowed to the tune of When You Wish Upon a Star, a larger-than-life Goofy mannequin hung from the stern anchor chain while Mickey Mouse heads decorated the ship's huge twin funnels. In short, there was no question that we were cruising on the Disney Magic, a ship imagined, designed and programmed by experts in children's entertainment.

Primed by a day at Walt Disney World in Florida, our family shuttled over to Port Canaveral, next to the famous space centre. After offering three and four-day cruises to the Bahamas for the past few years, Disney has finally launched a seven-day cruise that steams into the Caribbean and visits St. Maarten and St. Thomas before returning to Florida via Castaway Cay, Disney's private island in the Bahamas.

Needless to say, we had quite a bit of ocean to cover. The first two days were spent entirely at sea and the ship was put to its ultimate test: entertaining the 2000-plus passengers, including hundreds of active, Disney-crazed kids.

As we wandered through the ship on our first day, deck 9 became an immediate hit with our kids. Corin, our four-year-old, loved the Mickey pool, shaped like -- you guessed it -- a certain famous mouse's head, complete with round, black wading pool ears. He particularly enjoyed the enormous slide that wanders all the way down from deck 10. Eight-year-old Sophie became a fan of the Goofy pool, which is deeper than Mickey's and has kid-friendly hot tubs. Although popular during the heat of day, we had these pools pretty much to ourselves later in the evening throughout our cruise.

Kids day, every day
The pool deck wasn't the only kid-friendly zone. Almost all of deck 5 is laid out with activity centres for kids of all ages. The Oceaneer Lab, dominated by a Buzz Lightyear statue in the middle of the room, provides computer terminals, game areas and a discovery centre for nine to 12-year-olds. Children age three to eight are invited to the Oceaneer Club, a creative activity area with a large pirate ship playground, slides and more. Teens 13 to 17 can enjoy themselves in Common Grounds, their own private club area, while baby-sitting is available for tiny tots under three for an additional fee.

Parents are given some flexibility: they can either spend time with their kids or leave them at the children's activity centres staffed by a team of keen counsellors. Parents are handed pagers so that they can head to adult-only zones (or back to their rooms), attached to their kids with invisible umbilical cords.

Once the kids are taken care of, where does that leave the parents? The ship actually has several areas that are for adults only. There's an adults-only pool, a restaurant reserved exclusively for adults, nightclubs, a fitness centre and the ESPN Skybox on deck 11 for sports addicts. There is a hair salon and a spa, where you can enjoy a facial, massage or other treatment. Actually, we were surprised that several people we met were cruising without kids.

Each evening, a Personal Navigator newsletter arrived at our stateroom, outlining the next day's activities. All day, every day, there were a host of things to choose from, ranging from wine-tasting to tours of the enormous kitchens to such favourites like listening to pirate stories and making flubber with the youth staff counsellors. The 977-seat Walt Disney Theater had nightly shows. We enjoyed Hercules: A Muse-ical and other stage shows, as well as a screening of 102 Dalmations.

Our stateroom was our refuge from the ship's busy pace. It was a marvel of compactness, yet with enough storage space and room for all of us to relax in comfortably. At night, the couch converted (by magic, our kids thought) into bunk beds by dropping the upper bunk down from a hidden compartment in the ceiling. We often sat out on the veranda, sipping a drink while reading or gazing out over the silvery waves. One day, schools of flying fish entertained us as they leapt and glided hundreds of feet to escape the approaching ship. Inside, our children engaged in activities of their own or watched an unending choice of Disney favourites on TV.

 

To our kids' delight, Disney characters weren't restricted to the TV screen. At a character autograph-signing session, our four-year-old was beside himself with wonder, gazing at the larger-than-life Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Goofy. Every evening, characters appeared in the huge mid-ship atrium. During one breakfast, they wandered among the tables, posing for photos and signing autographs.

Dinner with Mickey
Meals were a highlight. We rotated among three restaurants, colourful Parrots' Cay, elegant Lumière's and our favourite, Animator's Palate. Here, over the course of the meal, black-and-white drawings of Disney scenes and characters burst into full colour to theme music. From Mickey Mouse-shaped breakfast waffles to Mickey ice-cream bars, children have a choice of many favourites (our kids chose macaroni and cheese on a regular basis).

The food was a relaxing contrast to our dining experiences at Disney's mainland parks. The choices were varied, the wine list impressive and the service impeccable. We really got to know our waiting staff, too, since they rotated with us, serving us at each restaurant throughout the trip. We felt more pampered at dinner than at any other time during the cruise.

It was really fun to get to know some of the more than 900 staff on board. Recruited from over 50 countries, they were a global mix, almost invariably energetic and friendly to all passengers. All spoke English, but it was entertaining to hear a gathering of restaurant staff singing Happy Birthday with a melting pot of accents.

Shore Leave
After two days at sea, it was thrilling to get out and enjoy St. Maarten. The only problem lay in which shore excursion to choose. They ranged from laid-back beach visits and island tours to adventures like submarine rides and yacht races. We chose to visit the French side of the tiny island, the smallest in the world that is shared between two countries. Apparently, in order to divide St. Maarten between Holland and France, one citizen of each country set off to walk around the island, each in a different direction, to determine how much of the coastline each would own. The Dutchman carried a bottle of rum and was slowed down considerably, while the Frenchman was fortified by a less debilitating bottle of wine. He walked farther, and to this day the French part is still larger.

We chose to explore Pinel Island, a national park. Sophie swam in the surf while Corin discovered innumerable hermit-crabs, scuttling about in their borrowed armour. Later in the day, we taxied over to Marigot, the capital of the French territory. It's a beautiful little town that was a delight to explore and shop in. Like all Caribbean departments of France, it really felt like a little piece of France had been moved to the tropics.

The next day's excursion to St. Thomas was even better. A smaller boat ferried a group of us, pitching and rolling, to neighbouring St. John, one of the most beautiful islands I've ever seen. Much of the island is a US national park, so it's mostly protected from development. Our destination was Trunk Bay Beach, once selected as one of the world's 10 most beautiful beaches. Although it was somewhat busy when we visited, I'd have to agree with the designation. Here, previously-timid Sophie ("Daddy, there might be sharks in the water!") plucked up courage and donned the snorkelling gear we had rented. We bobbed over a rainbow of colourful fish and coral, almost within reach, while parrotfish, sergeant-fish and butterfly-fish were among the few who vied for our attention.

Our last full day on the cruise was spent at Castaway Cay, Disney's private 400-hectare island in the Bahamas. Castaway Cay is a fun place -- especially if you like a busy beach scene. Kids enjoy the water playground just off the beach and snorkelling around the sunken ship, all of which takes place in a lagoon. But if you want tranquillity, this isn't the place for you.

Just away from the family beach, the island is relatively peaceful. Bicycles can be rented and are perfect for exploring the island. The adult-only beach, which can only be reached by shuttle along an abandoned runway, is nicer and has far less traffic than the family one. Here, with the ocean breeze wafting through the open window and the sound of surf rolling on the beach, I treated myself to a massage in a beach-side cabin.

When we finally wandered back to the ship at the end of the day, it felt like we were arriving home. We rode the glass elevator up to our stateroom and toasted Castaway Cay from our veranda. Shortly after the sun set, the Magic pulled away from the island and we resumed our journey back to Florida. Memories of sand, warm sea and tropical islands melded with splashing in the pool and a dose of Disney fun and imagination.

 

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