"You're dead if you aim only for kids. Adults are only kids grown up, anyway." -- Walt Disney
It's 30 minutes till midnight, and inside the Sessions piano bar on the Disney Magic cruise ship, things are about to get rowdy.
A group of middle-age pals mosey in, holding boot-shaped mugs of beer that light up and change colors. They are wearing cowboy hats with a lone star on the front that blinks red and blue.
" Red Solo Cup time," the pianist, Gayla Smith, announces after they plop one of the flashing-star hats on her head and make her promise to wear it the rest of the night. She knows this group likes this song. It's the drinking anthem they had requested the night before -- minus the blinky hats.
"You guys have to sing the naughty words yourselves," Smith says. "I'd like to keep my job."
The dancing and singing that commences around the piano are not quite the stuff of a Toby Keith country music video, but if there were such a thing as a Disney frat party, this would be it.
"Red Solo cup/I fill you up/Let's have a party!/Let's have a party!"
Across the hall in the Rockin' Bar D, adults get down to pop and country tunes spun by a DJ. The dance party kicked off earlier with a slightly suggestive Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy number performed onstage by the ship's professional dancers.
Welcome to Disney after dark.
It has been hours since the last ice cream "Mickey bars" were served at dinner, hours since children lined up dozens deep to take pictures with Mickey and Minnie.
While the Mouse is away, the grown-ups play.
"Why would you go on a Disney cruise without kids?" people asked when my boyfriend, Mike, and I told them we were going on the Magic's inaugural sailing from Galveston in late September. At least three friends asked if we'd like to -- please -- borrow theirs.
After all, just 20 percent of adults who take Disney cruises travel without children. Of the 2,000 or so passengers on our cruise, about 650 would be kiddos. (With their 2,700 capacity, cruises can have more than 1,100 kids on board.)
Disney Cruise Line makes no pretenses about the family focus on its ships. ("That's the people we want on board; that's who we cater to," a tour guide tells us on our first day.)
Mike and I like children. We just don't have any of our own. Therefore, we're not used to being around them.
We're also not particularly fanatical about Disney. Sure, being in our 30s, we grew up on a steady diet of Disney movies and were kids ourselves when the Disney Channel started. We're more than a little familiar with the brand.
But we boarded the ship with excited curiosity: Could a nonfanatical, childless couple survive a seven-night Western Caribbean Disney cruise, relax, find enough to do and kinda, sorta have a good time?
The answer for us was an easy yes, from the first day to the last. If it's an adult experience you want, like singing Red Solo Cup in the piano bar, it's an adult experience you'll find -- if you don't mind being around kids for at least a little bit of it.
Sure, you have to avoid an entire deck (five), where the kids' clubs are and where the ceiling is lower to make small children feel taller and more empowered. (Yikes!)
Sure, the "adult" entertainment barely gets to PG-13, and the only form of gambling on board is bingo. (Read: no casino.)
But each day's "Personal Navigator" newsletter/guide outlines, hour-by-hour, the activities taking place for adults (and children and families, too). So we had no trouble filling our days and nights.
"Hakuna Matata...it's our problem-free philosophy" -- Timon and Pumbaa, "The Lion King"
Yes, there's a water slide and a spray park for little ones, but adults get about one-third of the pool-level deck to themselves, including the Quiet Cove pool, which has two Jacuzzis, plenty of chaise longues -- uncovered and covered -- and a small deck for live music or "adult pool games."
We spend our first day on the ship relaxing with books and iPods, and drinking half-priced Bloody Marys and mimosas before noon. Then I switch to fruitier cocktails of the day and Mike goes for beer. (Disney added Texas-brewed Shiner Bock to the taps for the Galveston cruises.)
With the Signals Bar steps away from the pool and servers in no short supply, there are as many opportunities for "adult beverage consumption" (for those of legal U.S. drinking age) on this Disney ship as there are on any other cruise ship. (Disney even allows guests age 21 and older to bring alcohol in their carry-on luggage and consume it in their staterooms.)
We chat with the adults around us in this most serene part of the ship: parents who have left their kids in the capable hands of the youth staff at the Oceaneer Club or Flounder's Reef Nursery (see accompanying story), grandparents checking out the cruise before they come back with their families, and Texans who have taken dozens of cruises out of Galveston and are as curious about the Disney cruise "adult experience" as we are.
During another afternoon at the pool, a brief but fierce thunderstorm has us ducking for cover into the adults-only Cove Cafe coffee bar, where we sip addictive $8 espresso concoctions that include gracious pours of Bailey's, Grand Marnier and amaretto. We order a third one to share and tip the barista generously -- charge it to the room!
One day, I take advantage of a $129 "Spa-topia" deal at the Vista Spa & Salon, which, along with the fitness room, is in the "18 and up" portion of Deck 9. My therapist uses Elemis products for a deep-cleansing facial, massage and foot treatment. I feel like I'm floating on the water, but smile cordially when she tells me my muscles are tight and skin looks "stressed," and I politely decline when she recommends several hundred dollars' worth of products they sell to help me look and feel this great when I get home.
Inside the Rain Forest room in the spa, adults can relax on heated stone seats and listen to the tinkling of a fountain, or sit in a detoxifying sauna for total mind-body relaxation.
"You've got serious thrill issues, dude. Awesome." -- Crush, "Finding Nemo"
With dozens of shore excursions, or "port adventures" as Disney calls them, offered, it took us days to choose what we wanted to do in our three ports of call: Grand Cayman, Costa Maya and Cozumel. We knew when we booked that we wanted to have some adventures on the high seas.
Underwater adventure: A Sea Trek "helmet dive" is the answer in Grand Cayman. It's a unique underwater exploration experience for those who aren't scuba-dive certified.
After instruction on safety and science during a boat ride to the launch site, one by one, everyone in our small group of eight begins to descend a ladder that reaches 30 feet down. Just before our head gets to water level, an instructor fits a 75-pound helmet, connected by a tube to an oxygen tank on the boat, and we breathe normally during our 25-minute guided walking tour of the ocean floor. (That 75 pounds becomes about 15 underwater.) Our guide shakes fish food in front of our helmets, and dozens of small yellow, black and gray "Sergeant Major" fish swarm our heads. He points out colorful coral, and we throw an underwater torpedo toy to each other as if we were throwing around a football. It's freakishly exhilarating; we look and feel like deep-sea astronauts.
Beach adventure: In Costa Maya, Mexico, we forgo a port adventure and strike out on our own. I'm more disappointed than Mike that many of the shops are closed for a holiday. No diamond shopping today.
Residents of the nearby fishing town of Majahual, rebuilt after being destroyed by a hurricane several years ago, now depend almost entirely on cruise ship passengers for income. Just steps away from port, a well-positioned representative for a resort called Quinto Sol on Majahual Beach persuades us to drop $100 cash for a private cabana, unlimited drinks, private changing rooms and an hour on a jet-ski. Ninety minutes later, we're bopping up and down on the ocean waves, riding together on a jet-ski, turning circles and spraying water into the air.
The ride back to port takes us past the gritty town and its tiny ramshackle homes, a Catholic church with a hand-written sign and numerous stands selling local fruits, coffees and magazines. We're grateful we have skipped an excursion for a chance to see into the heart of this town and its people.
High-flying adventure: In Cozumel, the adventure on the high seas begins with seasickness. Not, fortunately, for us, but for many around us inside the ferry on rough seas from our ship to Playa del Carmen, on the mainland.
Once safely in Playa del Carmen, our big adventures await at Xplor Park, a 3-year-old amusement park (not owned by Disney) built into the caves and jungles of the area. (The eco-friendly park is just 20 percent man-made and took several years to build, a tour guide tells us.) The park offers four very "active" adventures: zip-lining, driving amphibious vehicles on land and through water, rafting through caves, and swimming through the caves.
We must don hard-hat safety helmets the whole time. With just about five hours to "play," we spend the first couple zip-lining from tower to tower, searching the trees far below us for wildlife and scanning the horizon miles ahead. Some of the lines include "water landings" and waterfalls -- welcome on a hot day.
After a break for an outdoor buffet of local cuisine, we buckle into an amphibious vehicle and drive along the well-planned path through the jungle. A bright blue bird flies up beside us, and a furry creature scurries into the trees. We flip on our headlights when instructed and plunge our vehicle into the muddy waters of the caves lined on all sides with impressive stalactite and stalagmite formations.
We only get to complete two of the four activities before it's time to meet the guide for a ride back to the ship, but we vow to come back one day and spend more time in this unique adventure park.
"We dance, we kiss, we schmooze, we carry on, we go home happy. What do you say? Come on." -- Hades, "Hercules"
After 9 every night, the "Beat Street" family activity area becomes an adults-only club district. Diversions sports bar offers games on TV and late-night snacks.
Rockin' Bar D's late-night entertainment starts about 10:15 -- perfect for those night-owls who take the 8:15 p.m. dinner seating. In one of our favorite shows, ventriloquist Lynn Trefzger brings a trunk full of sassy-mouthed puppet "friends" onto the stage and uses "human dummies" as part of the act, too.
Another night, "Magic Dave" Williamson makes things disappear -- including an audience member's $100 bill. Other nights, members of the cruise staff don wigs for a "One Hit Wonders" night or wiggle onstage to I'm Sexy and I Know It, spun by ship DJ Clint Kuper.
Things are usually more subdued in the Sessions piano bar, where the pianist, with her "magical iPad" on the music stand, will play just about any request, from standard piano bar repertoire like Sweet Caroline, to the oddly chosen My Heart Will Go On from Titanic.
If you like hand-crafted martinis, Sessions is where to drink them. We become fans of the $9.25 balsamic grande: Grey Goose vodka and 5-year-old balsamic vinegar with muddled strawberry; and the $9.25 gin garden: Hendrick's Gin, muddled cucumbers, lemon juice and Sprite.
During the day, the piano bar is the site of beverage tastings offered to adults for $15 per person. We sign up for the tequila and margarita tasting and get quite a surprise when much of the class consists not of sipping but of shot-taking. ("Welcome to origami class," the instructor jokes at the beginning.) By the end, audience members are volunteering to be "human margaritas," letting the instructor pour each component into his or her mouth.
I have flashbacks to a couple of not-so-pleasant tequila experiences in college and let Mike finish all my shots.
"If you are what you eat, then I only wanna eat the good stuff." -- Remy, "Ratatouille"
The food at Disney Magic's three main family dining rooms -- Parrot Cay, Animator's Palate and Lumiere's -- is plentiful and well-presented, and it's a solid PG ("pretty good").
Adults, though, will want to make reservations for as many meals as possible at Palo, the grown-ups-only, dress-code-enforced dining room with an ocean view that serves fine Northern Italian cuisine for dinner and brunch for $20 per person. (Palo, which means "pole" in Italian and is decorated with Venetian masks and Murano glass, is meant to pay tribute to northern Italy, which is where the ship was built.)
Dinner begins with our server, Andre from South Africa, wheeling over the "Ferrari" of antipasti. He assembles a pre-meal plate that includes, among other things, generous chunks of imported Parmesan, prosciutto and bresaola. After an appetizer sampler platter that includes shrimp and calamari, we cleanse our palates with lemon sorbet.
Mike declares his entree of beef tenderloin with Gorgonzola one of the best he has ever eaten; my branzino (European seabass) cooked in parchment with vegetables is most fresh. Andre insists we try two kinds of ravioli: lobster and beef -- alongside our entrees -- just because he thinks we'll like them.
By dessert -- chocolate souffle into which Andre pours both a cream and a chocolate sauce -- we're sufficiently stuffed. But not so much that we turn down the post-dessert sgroppino shot of vodka, white wine and lemon sorbet. Dinner at Palo is an uber-European event that can last more than two hours.
So is brunch. It starts with the hors d'oeuvres table -- caviar in a silver-lidded bowl, smoked salmon roses, two kinds of ahi tuna, breads, cheeses, fruits and other delicacies and pastries.
Mike chooses eggs Florentine for his main, chef-prepared course; I order pizza topped with Gorgonzola and grapes -- one of four gourmet pizzas offered that day. We finish our main courses and sip our champagne, then start on the sweets -- strawberries inside a sugar-spun bowl, and bite-size creations in mini bowls that require tiny spoons, like vanilla and mango panna cottas and mini Sachertortes.
Everything is just a little bit better at Palo -- even the coffee tastes fresher.
"Be our guest, Be our guest, Our command is your request" -- Chorus, "Beauty and the Beast"
I've cruised on another commercial line from Galveston before; Mike has not. The other cruise line did not wish me a "magical cruise" over and over as I went through the check-in and security process. The other cruise line did not announce my party's name over a loudspeaker when we arrived so we could be personally welcomed, clapped for and shown to our elevators.
Disney prides itself on this level of service ("cheesy" as it may seem, at first), and with a staff of 1,000 crew (from around the world) on board a ship of 2,000 passengers, we are made to feel like -- dare I say it -- a prince and princess straight from a Disney film. Ship personnel remember our names and our conversations. (Personality is their No. 1 job qualification, they say.)
When I tell our assistant server, Bianca from South Africa, that I'm feeling "off" the first night at dinner, she appears with a ginger ale and a plate of green apples and crackers. By the last night, we're swapping e-mail and Facebook addresses. Each night at dinner, Bianca and our head server, Deneval from Jamaica, are part of a show that the waiters put on in the dining room -- on "Pirate Night," it's a limbo contest; on the last night, it's a parade of flags representing the servers' home countries, set to It's a Small World After All.
Our room is meticulously cleaned and towels replenished twice a day. Pieces of chocolate picturing the dwarf "Sleepy" of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs are left in our room each night. Our state room host, Fermin from the Philippines, doesn't just leave the ubiquitous towel animals in our room, he puts sunglasses on them and hangs one -- a monkey -- from a hanger.
No detail, it seems, is forgotten. Staff hand out antibacterial wipes before meals; signs in public restrooms encourage covering door handles with paper towels when opening them.
In line to reboard the ship after a port stop in Grand Cayman, we get ice water and cold towels handed out by cruise hosts; the passengers heading the other way down the dock, to the other commercial cruise liner, do not.
Twice, we order a pizza from room service after midnight. Twice, it comes to us free, fresh from the oven -- and with no questions asked.
"But, Mother, I don't want to grow up." -- Wendy, "Peter Pan"
Disney's in the business of making dreams come true, of making even the most cynical curmudgeons wholeheartedly believe that they can, with a little "faith, trust and pixie dust," will their wishes into reality.
It's hard not to get swept up in this. Not when songs like Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo from Cinderella and A Whole New World from Aladdin are piped in over the PA system outside your door 24/7. Not when even the ship's horn toots the familiar melody When You Wish Upon a Star each time it leaves a port. Not when you see Mickey swoop down on a cable above you, "save" the ship from pirates on "Pirate Night" and set off a fireworks show on the sea.
And I'm not sure I'd want to NOT get swept up in it. Mike and I remark to each other often throughout the week that there is a certain bit of magic to be found inside this floating cocoon of light and happiness and fairy tales.
One of our favorite times of day becomes the period between the early and late dinner shifts, when families line up patiently to snap photos with beloved Disney characters -- Mickey and Minnie and their pals, of course, along with the Chipmunks and all the movie princesses.
Seeing the way little girls' faces light up when they see Cinderella, or the way a little boy high-fives Donald Duck, keeps us coming back night after night to watch them in the grand atrium lobby.
As the cruise director says, "Disney is in the business of entertaining." We make sure not to miss any of the award-winning, Broadway-style shows presented in the high-tech Walt Disney Theatre. My favorite is Twice Charmed, which reimagines Cinderella with a different ending. Mike's favorite is the darker Villains Tonight!, which reunites favorite Disney villains and seems more suited for adults.
In the Buena Vista Theatre, which shows first-run movies and sometimes sneak previews of Disney films ("because, well, we own them," a tour guide explains), we catch Finding Nemo in 3-D one afternoon.
Another day we make it a point to watch babies out-crawl each other in the adorable "Jack Jack's Incredible Diaper Dash."
We discover the Quarter Masters arcade and buy enough points to play several rounds of air hockey, Ms. Pac-Man and Donkey Kong alongside children who have probably never heard of them before this. We discover the pingpong tables at the windiest part of the ship and play like we did when we were kids (except with cocktails nearby).
While it is true that Disney does a good job keeping adults away from children if they want to be separated, it's ultimately the children who help the adults experience the magic of it all.
So, sure, with 30 to 40 percent of the passengers being children, you're bound to get stuck behind the little girl in the breakfast buffet line who stirs brown sugar into her oatmeal, meticulously, three different times.
You're sure to get pushed to the corner of a small elevator to make way for a family with a stroller.
You're sure to witness some whining at dinner, feel the whoosh of a kid as he runs down the hallway, or smell a dirty diaper.
If you don't like children, or the thoughts of these things horrify you, you probably shouldn't take a Disney cruise.
But if you pack an ounce or two of patience and let yourself remember what it was like to be a child who believes in magic, fairy tales and happy endings, you probably will find yourself wishing, after you're home, that Tinker Bell and her pixie dust would take you back on board for a few more days.