I’ve always prided myself on being one of those people who’ll do anything for their family. Last week, when my parents surprised all the Blasbergs with a weeklong Disney cruise in the Caribbean, that adage was put to the test.
Like most snobs, I’ve always said cruises are my worst nightmare: You’re trapped in the same place with the same people, there’s a dearth of culture, and the food can’t be that fresh if it’s been onboard for at least as long as you have. This cruise in particular seemed especially daunting because there’s the added element of exclusively Disney programming, including cartoon character meet and greets, children’s “raves,” and an endless stream of animated kids’ movies. Yet, I have three nephews I adore, who I knew would adore all of that stuff, and who don’t know I’m a snob yet. (They’re William, 5, Ethan, 3, and Maxwell, 1.) Not to mention I’m at an age when I shouldn’t take bonding time with my parents for granted. So, despite my hesitations, I packed a bag of comfy, elasticated clothing and it was anchors away.
I flew from New York to Houston, and then took a taxi from Houston to Galveston, Texas. Technically, I took two taxis because the first one I was in broke down and the driver switched cars at a Texaco somewhere off Interstate 45. I wondered, Is this a bad omen? but kept heading for the big red, white, and blue mega cruiser with the silhouette of Mickey Mouse on its smokestacks. Since cruises have become a big part of Disney’s multi-million-dollar theme park business, check-in was smooth and hyper-organized: Perky, smiling people who are generous with compliments (“I looove your jacket,” “You have sooo many stamps in your passport”) assigned us keycards (“these are your Keys to the World”), ushered us to a waiting area, and then on the boat.
By the numbers: The Disney Wonder is an 83,000-ton, 964-feet-long, 171.5-feet-tall floating city comprised of 11 decks and 877 staterooms, and has a crew of 950. Originally launched in 1999, it got a makeover in the fall of 2016. It’s the only boat on the seven seas to have four captains: the ship’s captain, Captain Mickey, Captain Hook, and Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. In the boat’s central lobby, which is outfitted in an Art Deco style, a sculpture of Ariel from The Little Mermaid sits with her hair permanently pointing (floating) into the air. This was especially auspicious since even before we disembarked I overheard no fewer than four different sets of parents call out for their daughter, “Ariel!”
For the first part of the journey I subconsciously reverted to the sorts of things we think “cool people” do in new situations. For example, my sister-in-law Angie had given me a Mickey Mouse T-shirt, which I purposefully wore under a big sweatshirt so I didn’t look too excited or eager to be there. At the first night’s welcome mixer, I declined to dance. I didn’t speak to anyone I wasn’t related to either, and kept a general countenance of contrarianism.
The children, on the other hand, were entranced. They had autograph books and dutifully went up to Mickey, Minnie, Captain Jack Sparrow, and a bunch of other characters I had never heard of (who is ‘Stitch’ and when did he come out?) to ask for their John Hancocks. The pools were heated and peepee-free because they had mandatory bathroom breaks every 30 minutes. The elder of my nephews spent their afternoons in the Oceaneer Club, which had slides, dress-up clothing, and counselors leading group activities. (All the kids were given a bracelet with a homing device, so parents could track them at all times.) Their fun was seemingly infectious and the smiles on their faces were mesmerizing.
Let’s talk about the food for a moment. It’s either the best worst food or the worst best food I’ve ever seen, depending on how you look at it, and there’s so much of it. For breakfast: waffles, French toast, Danishes, doughnuts, sausages, bacon, and an omelet station. For lunch: anything you want—as long as it’s fried. We had dinner at 5:45 p.m. every night, which included soups, salads, and entrees, and something I’ve never seen before. Couldn’t decide on one thing? No problem, just order more than one appetizer and more than one entree. This was encouraged. On the second day, I complained I hadn’t been hungry at all on the trip. My brother, Chris, said that was a good thing, and explained the goal on a cruise is to never feel the pangs of an empty stomach and to continue to graze, like cattle, throughout all the waking hours. “If you’re hungry you’ve failed,” he announced. There was also complimentary 24-hour room service and a never-ending self-serve soft-serve ice cream station.
On the afternoon of the third day, I snuck away from the family fun and went to the gym, which, unsurprisingly, was the only place on the boat that wasn’t crowded. On the treadmill, I had a hard time reconciling my behavior the last few days: Why was I being so grumpy when I really should have been more Goofy? (Get it?) Sure, in the real world, catering to the world of Disney isn’t rebellious or disruptive in the way modern culture celebrates. But look around—everyone else was loving this place. It was an epiphany: By attempting to be cool I wasn’t being cool. In fact, I was being uncool.
It was an epiphany: By attempting to be cool I wasn’t being cool. In fact, I was being uncool.
ade and went all-in for the rest of the Disney cruise. For dinner, I put on the same Mickey Mouse T-shirt I hid on the first day (my mother did a load of laundry on the boat in one of the laundry rooms that was on every floor) and this time proudly and on the outside of my ensemble. I wore matching red sweatpants, too. I ordered deep-fried brie cheese as an appetizer and both a strip steak and ravioli for my entree(s). That night was pirate-themed, and everyone at the table next to us had brought their own pirate costumes: Fully grown men wearing cheap striped pants and puffy white blouses and headbands and eye patches and clip-on hoop earrings. And they were doing it without a shred of humiliation. Amazing!
The pirate party turned into a rave, and Captain Mickey came down on a zip line over the swimming pool to vanquish an ill-tempered Captain Hook. There was a DJ and I danced with abandon and swung my nephews around so many times I thought we’d all puke. That night, I went to the ice cream station twice. I fell into bed and flicked through the all-Disney stations (from Mickey and Donald Duck cartoons to the Marvel franchise, from a charming Reese Witherspoon in Home Again to a queenly Judi Dench in Victoria and Abdul), and drifted off to bed with a Happiest Place on Earth grin on my face.
On our last morning, as I folded my new Pirates of the Caribbean bandana into my luggage, I had learned a lesson that applied beyond Disney cruises. Cool doesn’t have to mean the same thing as contrarian. Yes, it’s easy to be snobby and reject the cheesier things. But life—on a Disney cruise and off it too— is sometimes all about getting out of a safe space, putting on an eyepatch and a fake hoop earring, and making the most of it. The Blasbergs had a marvelous time on this cruise. I bonded with my family and made memories we’ll cherish forever. All because for a few days I let my Disney flag fly. I wouldn’t recommend calling your daughter Ariel, but now I won’t roll my eyes at anyone who does.