If you have children, and you want to take a cruise, it’s gotta be with Disney. Right?
That conventional wisdom is strongly reinforced when you sail on Uncle Walt’s newest ship, the gleaming, year-round, 4,000-passenger Fantasy. I attended the Fantasy’s christening in New York earlier this year, and then the whole family hopped aboard for a preview sail in the Bahamas in late March. It’s the third Disney cruise we’ve taken as a family, and it’s everything Disney promises it will be.
But Disney doesn’t rule the seven seas in the growing market for family cruises. There is another.
Last summer, we boarded the Norwegian Cruise Line’s Epic, a megaship on a special mission in the Western Mediterranean. The Nickelodeon-themed cruise, featuring the likes of SpongeBob, FanBoy, and Jimmy Neutron, plus stars from iCarly and Victorious, popular live-action sitcoms on the network, provides a far more (pardon this) immersive experience. And I’m not just talking about getting slimed, although there is that.
We had a terrific time on the Epic, and it set a high bar for family cruises. But after sailing on the Fantasy, we’re deeply conflicted. People have asked us, “Who would you cruise with?” — and we hesitate.
Who would we cruise with?
In some ways, it’s not fair to compare the two experiences. But here’s my best attempt at a side-by-side comparison:
The Disney cruise experience is highly structured from the moment you board the ship and your name is cheerfully announced as you walk into the atrium. Everything is timed, from dinner seatings to shows to character appearances. Even a ship as large as the Fantasy seems almost intimate compared with the larger Epic. It’s hard to tell if the Fantasy was built for adults or kids, which is exactly the point. Everyone feels special. That’s Disney magic.
The latest and greatest Disney attractions on the Fantasy include a bigger and better Acquaduck “watercoaster,” a store where you can take your daughter for a princess makeover called the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, and a new interactive dining experience, the Animators Palate.
For the grown-ups, we’d highly recommend dinner at its adults-only French restaurant, Remy. As in the rat from the Disney movie. We’ll say no more.
NCL is know for its less structured “freestyle” cruising, which means you have more flexibility than on a traditional cruise line. Instead of being assigned a dining time, you’re given choices. And on a ship as large as the Epic, there are many. There’s no question about who this ship is designed for; the adults. First of all, there’s gambling, and on our Mediterranean cruise we couldn’t escape the smokers. But Nick does an absolutely amazing job of turning the vessel into one that looks as if it were built from the hull up with little ones in mind.
But the kids will remember it for other reasons. They met Tom Kenny, the guy who provides the voice for SpongeBob (he even serenaded our youngest daughter, Erysse). We attended several interactive Nick events, and of course we saw an entire family get slimed. Dora the Explorer is no Disney princess, but that didn’t seem to matter to the children. They were thrilled.
So which cruise is better?
Well, we’ve only sailed on one NCL ship – the magnificent Epic — versus three Disney ships. And our last Disney cruise on the Fantasy is freshest in our minds, so we’ll readily admit to our bias. But we’re still torn.