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A Tale of Two Cruises

Oh, we know what you're thinking—cruises are for retired cardiologists and their wives, who want to spend a week in deck chairs reading Robert Ludlum. Well, we're just back from two cruises, and we're here to tell you that the face of cruising has changed.

Since we honeymooned on the QE2, cruising has gotten bigger: it's currently the fastest-growing segment of the travel industry. And it's gotten younger: 1 million of the 8 million passengers who set sail in 2003 were under 19.

Travel + Leisure Family sent us and our kids, Gabriel, 13, and Charlie, 9, onto the high seas to find out why. Our mission: to test and compare Disney Cruise Line, which revolutionized the idea of the floating family vacation, and Royal Caribbean, which, just as its enormous ships hog the water, occupies a whopping 30 percent of the U.S. cruising market.

Some of our more condescending friends were, well, condescending when we announced our intentions, snidely telling us we'd be shouting "Bingo!" in our sleep for years to come. But we imagined our kids whooshing down a massive spiral slide into an onboard swimming pool or doing the macarena at a dessert bar on Deck 12, and we were not to be dissuaded.

THE DISNEY FACTOR If you sport a tattoo of Tigger on your ankle, or even Mickey dressed as a ninja on your biceps, as more than a few fellow passengers on our first weeklong cruise did, then chances are you feel there's no such thing as too much Disney. We respectfully disagree. Okay, maybe not so respectfully. Over the years we've come to distrust that voice loop in all parents' heads, implanted there from years of pop-culture indoctrination, telling us: Must...choose...Disney.

Still, Disney being Disney, it's the one cruise line that bills itself not just as fun for the whole family, but as fun only for the whole family. High rollers, for instance, need not board; there's no casino here. But as Disney has demonstrated over the decades, the trick to creating family entertainment isn't to remove the "adult" content. It's to figure out how to amuse the kids while placating the parents, who not only pay the way but are, in this case literally, along for the ride.

THE PARENT TRAP As we stepped onto the Disney Magic on a bright summer afternoon, a "cast member" looked at our tickets and proclaimed into a microphone, "The Panek-Wolitzer family from New York City has boarded the Magic," at which point her fellow cast members, arrayed at various levels around the soaring atrium, burst into applause. "That was so cool," Gabriel said, and we smiled at him, but inwardly we were wincing. This, we thought, was going to be a long, long week.

And at times during our stay the Disney sensibility was indeed inescapable. "Oh, boy, are we glad you're here!" squealed Mickey Mouse over the phone during our requested morning wake-up call. We also got to hear, whenever the ship blasted its signal, "When You Wish Upon a Star," foghorn-style. But our fear of being accosted by rogue Disney characters roaming the hallways turned out to be unfounded. In fact, the ship's printed itinerary, pored over by our kids as though it were Harry Potter Six: The Prisoner of Dizneyban, listed not only all the chances to "be a Mouseketeer," take an aerobics class, have a discount port-day facial, or play bingo (so our condescending friends were right!), but also where and when to meet Disney characters. Or not.

Our week aboard the Magic wasn't like being trapped within the shoulder restraints of a big Disney World ride; it was more like being coddled inside a nice, if outsized, hotel—one with a definite theme, but also with a kind of genteel, cream-colored, reassuringly generic feel. (The same is no doubt true of the Disney Wonder, the Magic's almost identical sister ship, which tours the Bahamas on three- and four-night journeys.) Even though we boarded with a steamer trunk full of irony, we soon found ourselves if not exactly worshipful, then at least often appreciative of the trademark Disney hyper-attention to detail, beginning with the clipboard-wielding Disney greeter who met our plane at the Orlando airport and directed us to the Disney shuttle bus that deposited us curbside at the Disney terminal in nearby Port Disney (er, Port Canaveral), and ending exactly one week later with a disembarkation procedure that emptied the 2,600-passenger ship in one hour flat. As a result, we wound up doing the one thing you want to do more than anything else at a resort: sitting back, relaxing, and enjoying the show.

BE THEIR GUEST And what a show it is. While a great number of Disney Magic's entertainment offerings are targeted at kids, many of them appealed to us as well—original stage shows with chorus lines, movable sets, and even heart-grabbing fireworks, as well as first-run Disney movies and a roster of magicians and comedians who reminded us of performers on The Tonight Show back when Johnny Carson was the host. (That's a compliment!) And the week we were on the Magic, a fine imitation Beatles band was the headliner for a sixties night, exemplifying Disney's effort to keep a new generation of parents happily nostalgic.

But we also couldn't help noticing that the Magic after dark took on a sedate rather than sexy feel. Though it's true that the well-conceived kids' programs, Oceaneer's Club (ages 3-7) and Oceaneer's Lab (ages 8-12), stay open into the evening so that parents can have time to themselves, we saw plenty of adults wandering the corridors at night with yawning children attached to their legs like vines. Some families were just beat, and the prospect of a cushy stateroom often seemed more attractive than partying into the night. (We had a suite, a bit snug but inviting, with sliding glass doors to separate the rooms, double sinks in one of the two bathrooms, and upper-crust hotel furnishings.)

An adults-only entertainment sector was off-limits to children after 9 p.m.—a nice idea in theory, but on the occasions when we ventured there, the cocktail lounge had all of eight guests by 11:30, and the adjacent dance floor emptied promptly at midnight, as if Cinderella's coach were waiting. Like the formula bottle next to the beer bottle we spied one night on a table in a bar called the ESPN Skybox (since replaced by a teen lounge), the truce between Disney and adulthood is not entirely an easy one.

LEAVING NEVERLAND Even before we boarded Royal Caribbean's Navigator of the Seas, we could tell we weren't in Disney's embrace anymore. This time, we had to find our own way to a terminal in Miami, and the signs there turned out to be ambiguous enough that our taxi had to circle the port twice before locating the right drop-off point (we could see the Navigator, we just couldn't get to it), and then we had to negotiate with the curbside porter over an appropriate tip for wheeling our luggage inside on a cart (apparently $9 was too little), and then—the ultimate ignominy!—no cast members waited at the gangplank leading onto the ship to applaud our arrival.

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