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Cruise filled with Disney magic

| Thursday, Jan. 25, 2007

Now that winter has finally struck the Mon Valley, there is no better time to stop the mail for a few days, dig out the bathing suits and head for a tropical vacation getaway.

We did just that a few weeks ago as I surprised my sons with a Christmas gift of a Disney Cruise to the Bahamas.

While Disney is famous for its resorts and amusement parks in Orlando, Fla., and Anaheim, Calif., the Disney Cruise Line trips offer the best of both worlds -- first-class service expected from Disney and a beach vacation. The all-inclusive cruises include everything from 24-hour room service to snacks by the pool.

Our trip began with an overnight stay at the Hyatt hotel conveniently located in the Orlando International Airport. With a heated swimming pool and first-class amenities, the Hyatt was not only conveniently located but also caters to Disney vacationers.

Our luggage was transported from outside our hotel room to the Disney Magical Express motor coach. We didn't see our luggage again until it "magically" appeared in front of our stateroom on the Disney Wonder. It was great not having to lug our bags around the airport or while boarding the ship.

It's also wise to come in a day before your cruise begins just in case there is a flight delay.

The drive from the Orlando airport to Port Canaveral, home of the Disney Cruise Line terminal, is only about 45 minutes, but for excited adults and kids, it seems like forever. As first-time cruisers, we didn't know what to expect as we came upon the port, but our eyes grew with excitement as the magnificent Disney Wonder came into view.

The Disney Cruise Line features two ships, the Wonder, and the Magic. Both are nearly identical and sail on three-, four- and seven-night trips in the Bahamas and Caribbean. Disney just added new itineraries this year sailing from the West Coast.

From the time we got off the motor coach and finally made our way on board the ship, the folks at Disney knew exactly how to take all of the aggravation out of checking in and registering as the whole process was stress-free.

Before we knew it, we were up on the top deck drinking Bahama Mamas, and my sons, Jordan and Jacob, were swimming in Goofy's Pool and watching movies on the large Jumbotron.

After a day relaxing and getting acquainted with the ship, we again went to Deck 10 for a very windy sail-away party, complete with all of the beloved Disney characters.

We then got situated in our stateroom on Deck 7. Our stateroom featured a private veranda with spectacular views of the ocean. It also featured two bathrooms, one with a shower and a pull-out sofa bed and another pull-down ceiling bed.

The rooms also feature details such as vintage photos of Walt Disney on the walls. My sons especially loved coming back to our room each night where our hostess, Willie, from Thailand, turned down our beds each night and left origami-style towel animals and chocolates for us.

The three-day cruise featured a day at port in Nassau, Bahamas, and another day at Disney's private island in the Bahamas, Castaway Cay.

Although it's hard to fit in all there is to see and do on a short cruise, we managed to simply do as much as we could without worrying about what we missed.

For those with youngsters, especially little girls, they will love getting to meet beloved Disney characters such as Belle, Snow White, Cinderella and others. The ship also features the 977-seat Walt Disney theatre, featuring live shows such as "Disney Dreams."

The Buena Vista Theatre plays first-run Disney movies. Guests are given daily navigators with all of the scheduled activities.

One of the highlights of our day in Nassau was a boat trip to Blue Lagoon Island, where we participated in a dolphin encounter. Although the water was a bit chilly, we got to dance, kiss, hug and interact with a dolphin. My youngest son, Jacob, laughed hysterically when our dolphin, named "Shaun" stuck its tongue out at him and splashed him in the face!

While many cruisers explored Nassau, just as many chose to stay on the ship while in port. And with good reason, as there is so much to do on board.

The Disney Wonder offers activities for adults, children and families that further enhance the personalized vacation experience Disney Cruise Line is known for providing its guests.

While the ship was in dry dock this past fall, an extension to the Mickey Pool on deck 9 was designed specifically for children not yet toilet trained and in swim diapers. Reminiscent of Mickey's sorcerer hat, the 385-square-foot toddler water-play pool features star- and moon-shaped interactive fountains and splash zones.

At Oceaneer Lab (for ages 8-12), a new computer simulator allows children to see what it's like to steer the Disney Wonder in and out of various ports of call.

Jacob loved spending time at the Oceaneer Club and even dined with his new friends and the counselors in the Beach Blanket Buffet dining room two nights in a row! He made "Flubber" and took part in a "Disney Sea University" graduation on our last night.

There is also an Oceaneer Club for ages 3-7 and The Stack for teenagers, with activities geared toward their ages.

My oldest son, Jordan, especially enjoyed the sports deck located at the front of the ship on the top deck, which included basketball hoops.

There is plenty for adults to do on board, including visits to the Vista Spa & Salon, the Quiet Cove adult pool and the adults-only Cove Cafe.

At night, Deck 3 features the "Route 66" section with nightclubs and bars.

Disney cruisers can also expect to gain a few pounds while on board as there is 24-hour room service, snack stations near the pools, and top-notch dinners in the Wonder's three dining rooms, Animator's Palate, Tritons and Parrot Cay. Adults can also enjoy the ship's exclusive Palo restaurant, featuring Italian cuisine.

For us, the favorite dining room was Animator's Palate. The dining room features animation scenes from classic Disney films on its walls that magically turn from black and white to color throughout dinner.

The cruise also featured a "Pirates" night, complete with fireworks that lit up the ocean.

While we enjoyed the on board activities, our day at Castaway Cay was the most enjoyable and relaxing. With sunny skies and warm temperatures, the private island is the perfect winter get-away outlet.

The island is home to the Flying Dutchman, a 175-foot ghost pirate ship that was featured in Disney's film, "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest." Captain Jack Sparrow can be found on the island posing for souvenir photos.

Castaway Cay has a family beach area, a teen beach and an adults-only beach called Serenity Bay.

We stuck to the family beach where the boys swam all day in the crystal blue waters and enjoyed the kids' playground located right in the middle of the lagoon. Jordan also loved Cookies Barbecue and ate ribs, chicken and fresh fruit while at the beach.

There is so much more to do on a Disney Cruise and three nights was just long enough for us to realize we wished we had a few more days to explore.

Alas, all good things must come to an end. But before disembarking, guests are treated to one last breakfast.

And as we walked off the ship and into the terminal, a trail of pixie dust reminded me of just how magical our Disney cruise vacation was.

Disney Cruise Line offers three-, four- and seven-night itineraries to the Bahamas and the Caribbean and seven-night land and sea vacation packages that include a stay at Walt Disney World Resort. To learn more, visit disneycruise.com or call Disney Cruise Line at 1-888-DCL-2500.

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