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Thursday, November 16, 2023

Disney Fantasy New Year's Cruise - Rating & Review

Sailing on Disney Cruise Line over the holidays has always been a dream of mine, but I didn't expect it to become a reality anytime soon due to the popularity of DCL and the astronomical holiday prices. However, we lucked out with a discounted Cast Member fare which actually made the Disney Fantasy our most affordable option over New Year's. I really wish that they had left the Christmas decorations up for the week, but I understand that they have to schedule decoration removal based on the availability of the shoreside teams. Maybe one day I'll get to go on a Merrytime Cruise and experience the ship's Christmas decor!

I first sailed on the Disney Fantasy in 2014, so it was interesting to see how the cruise compares nearly a decade later.

The rating system is based on ten components of a cruise vacation which I find important - itinerary, ship novelties, pools, activities, dining, bars and lounges, service, design and aesthetics, and stateroom.

Itinerary: 6.5/10

The Disney Fantasy entered service in 2012 and is still sailing the tired Eastern/Western Caribbean itinerary. It's a very generic itinerary which most cruise lines assign to their flagships sailing out of Florida. Once the Disney Treasure joins the fleet in December 2024, the Disney Fantasy will finally be able to venture beyond Nassau, St. Thomas, St. Maarten, Cozumel, Grand Cayman, Jamaica, and Castaway Cay. The Disney Dream was relieved of its 3/4/5 night Bahamas sailings once the Disney Wish began service in 2022 and spent the summer in Europe. I'm excited to learn what ports of call lie ahead for the Disney Fantasy.

Our sailing traveled the Western Caribbean itinerary. This just happens to be the exact same itinerary that we had in 2014.

Cozumel, Mexico: I need to count how many times I've been to Cozumel because I know it's a lot. I was just there a week prior on Celebrity Summit. Even though I've been to Cozumel more than any other cruise port, I can always try something new if I wish to. On our sailing, we decided to visit Nachi Cocom, an all inclusive private beach resort limited to 130 guests daily. We were intrigued by the limited capacity but soon realized that we actually prefer the crazy party vibes of Mr. Sancho's to the quiet and relaxing Nachi Cocom.

Grand Cayman: We decided to stay on the ship at this port. The tender boats are a hassle, especially on a larger ship. I had just been to Grand Cayman the week prior on Celebrity Summit and did not regret my decision to stay on the ship at Grand Cayman.

Falmouth, Jamaica: I think this was actually our favorite cruise port. We booked a River Tubing excursion (the same excursion we booked in 2017 when we were on Norwegian Escape) and had a great time floating down the river, then trying local Jamaican cuisine.

Castaway Cay: Other cruise lines are giving Castaway Cay a run for its money (looking at Royal Caribbean's Perfect Day Coco Cay... which I will hopefully finally visit next year), but Castaway Cay still shines. The island has a dock so that passengers do not have to tender to the island, as well as a tram that transports guests to different areas of the island. We booked a cabana at Serenity Bay (which is much less expensive than cabanas on RCCL's Coco Cay) and enjoyed the adults only beach, as well as having a refrigerator and shower at our cabana. I did find the food on the island to be quite generic - we visited Norwegian's Great Stirrup Cay last Christmas, and they had a food truck with tacos and ceviche. The other bummer is that the island closes down quite early because the crew has to get back to the ship. I really wish we had more time in port.

My final gripe about the itinerary is that the last day is at Castaway Cay. I would much prefer to have Castaway Cay be the first stop of the cruise. On the last day, everyone is scrambling to get back on the ship from a fun day at Castaway Cay, then pack their bags, go to dinner, see the show, fill out the survey cards. It's chaos, and it doesn't have to be that way. Just reverse the itinerary!

Aaron Review

Aaron's rating: 7.5/10
In Cozumel, I really enjoyed the beach club - I liked the scenery, the experience, and the overall vibe. The drinks were good, and food was okay. I’m glad that we got there early and spent most of the day there. It felt like vacation, in a place far from home being treated very nicely - a great way to kick off the trip and set the tone.

Jamaica was super fun. The port was very clean, but I thought it was more interesting outside of the port getting a more local experience. The island was really green, and everyone was really nice. I enjoyed tubing, and our guide was awesome. The beach where it spat us out into the ocean was really cool. I also enjoyed trying the food in Jamaica - rice and peas (which are actually black beans) and chicken and the Jamaican beef patty were super good.

Castaway Cay looked really nice from the ship, but the organization of everything didn’t make sense to me. I feel like we had to be shuttled really far to our cabana. Then when we got lunch at the adult beach, we were basically dining in the cul-de-sac behind our cabana, rather than in a nice location overlooking the ocean. Overall, I thought that Castaway Cay felt like an extension of the ship in a bad way. Everything felt rushed. Because it’s the cruise ship’s private island, I felt a sense of urgency and thought the organization was lacking because the same crew that’s running events, serving food, and bartending on the ship is also doing it on the island. I feel like this port is the worst for the crew.

Novelties "Do you have a...?": 8/10

All of the cruise lines are trying to one-up one another with "the first ____ at sea." I judge novelties based on their practicality, usefulness, and overall awesomeness factor. The Disney Fantasy is eleven years old, and for a ship of this age, it's impressive that it can still compete in this category.

Like its sister ship, Disney Dream, the Disney Fantasy has the Aqua Duck, a "water roller coaster" at sea. The clear tube wraps nearly the entire deck and has two uphill portions where jets of water propel the tube forward. We only rode the Aqua Duck once on our cruise because the line was so long. It would be awesome if they could improve the efficiency.

Disney is the only cruise line that features first-run movies at sea. This is because Disney is an entertainment company that owns the rights to its own movies. The Buena Vista Theater plays movies throughout the day. On our sailing, Aaron and I watched Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and Stove watched Avatar: The Way of Water. I'm not a huge movie buff and don't particularly enjoy sitting in a dark theater for hours on my vacation, so this isn't a huge draw for me. I also think that the first-run movies don't have as much appeal as they did when Disney first started doing this in 1998 because of the introduction of streaming. I watched Avatar: The Way of Water on Disney Plus in June... I guess that was six months after our cruise, but I was never going to watch Avatar in theaters, not even for free on a Disney Cruise.

When Disney Cruise Line first set sail in 1998, Disney sough special permission to shoot fireworks at sea (fireworks/flares are typically used as a distress signal). Norwegian Breakaway and Getaway debuted with fireworks in 2013/2014, but ended all fireworks shows in 2015 - which means that Disney Cruise Line is once again the only cruise line with fireworks at sea. We lucked out this sailing with two fireworks shows. The fireworks display on New Year's Eve was very long and great pyro - we were all super impressed! The Buccaneer Blast on Pirate Night is a little underwhelming pyro-wise compared to the grand fireworks shows at Disney Parks, but a fun time nonetheless.

My favorite novelty is still the ship's musical horns. The Disney Fantasy can play, "When you Wish Upon a Star, as well as respond, "Makes no difference who you are." It also plays, "Yo Ho Yo Ho A Pirate's Life for Me," "It's a Small World after all," "Be our Guest, Be our Guest," and "Hi Diddle Dee Dee An Actor's Life for Me." They're so fun, and it makes me happy to hear them!

Aaron Review

Aaron's rating: 9/10
I liked the movies. It’s nice to see a movie for the small ticket price of $3000 rather than watching it at your local Galleria. Aqua Duck was fine. Fireworks are always really spectacular. Pirate night is interesting to see everyone dancing like that and getting stoked. Fireworks always make me happy, and also the musical horn sounds do too. Like I always feel myself smiling when I hear that. The novelties are the cherry on top of the sundae.

Pools, Hot Tubs, and Waterslides: 9/10

The Disney Fantasy has several pools. On the main pool deck, there is a Mickey pool for children and a Donald pool for families. Both of these pools can be completely covered by the sliding pool deck, creating a dance floor for the evening parties. The downside is that they are both on the small side (which is a common characteristic of cruise ship pools). There are two splash areas - Nemo's Reef, a shaded splash area for young children, and Aqua Lab, a large splash area for all ages.

There is also a very large adults-only area on the pool deck. The Quiet Cove Pool has a not-quite-swim-up bar, surrounded by shaded deck chairs. On Deck 12 forward is Satellite Falls, another adult-only area with a wading "Satellite" pool water feature. We never had any issue finding chairs in the adult-only area. This is still the largest complimentary adult-only pool deck that I've seen on a cruise ship. I do think the layout is a little odd, though. Because the Quiet Cove pool is within a tight opening of the deck above, it is often in the shade. Satellite Falls has plenty of sun, but on Deck 12, it feels very far away from the bar.

The Disney Fantasy has a private pool deck for teens located at Vibe on Deck 5 forward. On the Disney Magic and Wonder, this pool area is for Cast Members. I do think it's a bummer that they don't give their crew the same amenity on the Disney Dream and Fantasy, but I do like the idea of teens having their own pool area.... that didn't keep them from cutting the Aqua Duck line, though.

As for water slides, the Aqua Duck wraps the entire main pool deck. There is also a slide at the Mickey pool for children ages 4 to 14.

The Disney Fantasy is a little short on hot tubs. There are two large glass-bottom hot tubs in the Quiet Cove pool area, and the other large glass-bottom hot tubs at the main pool deck. We didn't have any issue with crowding in the hot tubs by the adult pool, though.

Aaron Review

Aaron's rating: 6/10
I didn't care for the arrangement of the pool deck. The Quiet Cove pool was never in the sun, and it was positioned right outside the coffee cafe (Cove Cafe) which didn't seem to flow well from pool deck to a cozy high-end cafe. I wanted to lay out in the sun by Satellite Falls, but I didn't like how far away it was from the pool and the bar. I wish the bar was upstairs by Satellite Falls. The surrounding environment also wasn't very cozy - not enough softscape. We were surrounded by deck and hardness and lounge chairs. Everything was tan and white. It's weird. I definitely prefer the pools and deck layout on the Disney Wonder. The adult pool on the Wonder is actually a real sized pool that you can swim in, it gets sun throughout the day, and it's right by the bar.

Activities (for adults): 9/10

Disney Cruise Line schedules adult activities throughout the day, such as fitness classes, trivia, and tastings. We participated in many games of trivia, and determined that if we wanted any chance at winning, we needed to attend non-Disney trivia.... like music or movies trivia. On any other cruise line, I would win Disney Trivia, but not on Disney Cruise Line.

We went to the Champagne Tasting on Day 4. The class was $50 per person (recently increased to $75 per person), and we really enjoyed tasting and learning about champagne. We also participated in Mixology ($45 per person) on Day 6 in the Skyline Lounge. While we enjoyed Claudette, a.k.a. "Big Mama," I was disappointed to learn that most of the drinks were pre-made because when I did Mixology in 2014, we got behind the bar and took turns mixing drinks.

Europa District on Disney Fantasy is adults-only after 9 PM and hosts nightly shows and games in The Tube. We participated in The Quest and watched Match Your Mate. The shows with audience participation really depend on entertaining guests being chosen to play, and unfortunately, the guests chosen for the Match Your Mate game on our sailing were quite boring.

Aaron Review

Aaron's rating: 8/10
There's a lot fo variety and many things to do, but I just like the Wonder more. Yes, there' stons of activities. Not all activities are for you.

Entertainment: 10/10

In reviewing my Disney Fantasy Rating & Review from 2014, I realized that Disney has significantly cut back on stage shows in The Walt Disney Theater. In 2014, there were five stage shows - but we only had three, and the other nights were filled with variety shows from guest acts.

Disney's Aladdin - A Musical Spectacular is a Broadway-style live action show very similar to the version that was performed at Disney California Adventure's Hyperion Theater from 2003 to 2016. The Genie is the truly the star of this show and breaks the 4th wall with pop culture jokes. The production quality is amazing, and the theater is transformed with projections and lighting that sync with the show. The dialogue can be cheesy, but the narrative stays very close to the 1994 movie script with only a few creative changes. I miss Aladdin at the Hyperion, so I'm glad that I can revisit a version of the show on Disney Cruise Line.

Frozen, A Musical Spectacular is an hour-long retelling of Frozen, similar to the Broadway version (differs from the version shown at Disney California Adventure's Hyperion Theater from 2016 to 2020). It was added to the Disney Fantasy in October 2019, replacing the show Disney Wishes (my favorite!!). We recently saw this production on the Disney Wonder, so we did not watch it on our Disney Fantasy sailing.

Disney's Believe is a Broadway-style production about a workaholic botanist father, Dr. Greenaway, who is so focused on his plants that he doesn't have time to do magic with his daughter, Sophia, on her birthday. It's another Disney mashup that loosely ties together different Disney songs through the guise of needing to learn to believe in magic. The dialogue between numbers is corny, but the production is fantastic. I prefer this show to Disney's Dream: An Enchanted Classic because you only have to endure the cringey adult actress singing/talking in a high pitched baby voice for a few songs at the beginning and the end. For the rest of the show, we follow Dr. Greenaway. This show also makes use of Genie as a sprit guide/comic relief, breaking the 4th wall throughout. The sets and costuming are incredible. I think this show is a must-see, even if you, like me, hate it when adults play children and talk/sing in exaggerated baby voices.

Mickey's Pirates IN the Caribbean is performed on the deck stage by Mickey and friends. Mickey teaches us all how to be pirates, fortunately, moments before Captain Hook takes control of the ship. Mickey challenges Hook and his crew to a Captain's Challenge, and Hook agrees to relinquish control of the ship if we succeed. If we lose.... Mickey walks the plank! Doesn't seem like a fair wager.... luckily, we just went over how to be pirates, so we're ready for it. This is a fun show, and I actually prefer it to Buccaneer Blast.

Buccaneer Blast is quite similar in plot but features Captain Jack Sparrow in lieu of Captain Mickey. This show is hugely popular, and it's hard to get a spot with a good view if you're coming up from second seating dinner. It's followed by a fireworks show, set to the soundtrack of Disney's Pirates in the Caribbean.

Disney's theater productions are top-notch. The caliber of performance far exceeds that of any other cruise line production team. I'm also partial to Disney Cruise Line productions because I love Disney music. Even Aaron, who isn't really a Disney musical fan enjoyed the shows. The nightly productions in the Walt Disney Theater are what sets Disney Cruise Line apart from other cruise lines, and it's clear that Disney recognizes that and invests in it.

Aaron Review

Aaron's rating: 8.5/10
I mean Disney entertainment is always pretty top tier. I think the production value with the evening shows is very high. The crew does a great job of being engaged and acting stoked. I really appreciated the Walt Disney Theater - it's set up better than other cruise ship theaters. What's more interesting about Disney's entertainment is how the adults act to Disney entertainment which I think constitutes more to teh overall experience and people watching, rather than the planned and rehearsed entertainment on the cruise.

Dining: 8/10

Disney Cruise Line introduced the concept of rotational dining in 1998 with the debut of the Disney Magic, and it's remained the dining style on all Disney Cruise ships. Rather than going to the main dining room each night, guests rotate between three uniquely themed dining rooms. The serving team rotates with their tables so that they have the opportunity to get to know the guests and their dietary needs so that they can deliver exceptional personalized service. On the Disney Fantasy, guests rotate between Royal Court, Animator's Palate, and Enchanted Garden.

A common complaint online about DCL is that the food is mediocre. To be fair, that's a common complaint for most cruise lines. Over the years, I've experienced what I consider to be a decrease in quality of main dining room food on other cruise lines that seems to correlate with the quantity of specialty restaurants on a ship. This doesn't seem to be the case on DCL which has maintained roughly the same menus and same quality for two decades.

Food is subjective. Personally, I really like the food on Disney Cruise Line.... dare I say, it's my favorite. However, I don't think the food on this Disney Cruise was as good as on my last two DCL cruises on the Disney Wonder.... and I think that may have had something to do with the special holiday menu for New Year's Eve on the first night which seemed to throw things off for the rest of the sailing. Aaron has raved before that DCL has the best food, but toward the middle of the cruise, he didn't feel so positively about it.

My favorite thing about DCL is that it offers quick bites by the pool deck. Sometimes it's nice to just eat chicken tenders and fries. I also love that DCL offers free room service, and you can always order a Premium Mickey Bar. Seriously, it can be hard to grab a quick bite in off-meal hours on other cruise lines, so I really appreciate that DCL makes it so easy.

Aaron Review

Aaron's rating: 8/10
I wasn't really that impressed with the food on this cruise, honestly. I didn't like our table locations in the dining room, and I didn't like my seat in particular because I prefer to be looking at the rest of the dining room rather than being shoved in the corner. The food was good, but I didn't think it was as good as on the Wonder. The dining room team was amazing as always. I particularly liked how William served Rachel a child's plate of mac and cheese on the last night.

Bars and Lounges: 9/10

DCL has an adults-only night district on Disney Fantasy called Europa which consists of five European-themed bars and lounges. La Piazza is an Italian-themed bar in the shape of a Carousel. Ooh La La is a French lounge that offers exclusive Champagnes and Champagne cocktails. Skyline Lounge is a martini bar that features a screen wall that changes skylines - Paris, London, Barcelona, Athens, Florence, Budapest, and St. Petersburg. O'Gills is the Irish pub which hosts trivia throughout the day. The Tube is a British-themed nightclub and entertainment venue that hosts nightly adult entertainment and activities. I must admit that I'm not really into the Europe theme and much prefer the theming of The District on the Disney Dream. However, I do appreciate the themed bars and unique drinks at each venue.

Bars on the pool deck include Currents, Quiet Cove Pool Bar in the adults-only area, and the Wave Bar which is tucked away by the Aqua Lab. Other bars include the Cove Bar, Vista Cafe, and Meridian.

The bars and lounges are unique spaces, and there's really a spot for every vibe.

Aaron Review

Aaron's rating: 8/10
Bars were fine. None were particularly cozy, though. Something about the orientation of everything on this ship was caddywompus. Space planning willy-nilly. There were a lot of bars around, and it was easy to get drinks.

Service: 10/10

Disney service, as you expect, is above and beyond. As soon as we stepped on the ship, I felt the Disney Difference (it was a stark contrast from service on Celebrity Cruise Line the week before).

I think Aaron and I lucked out with the best stateroom host. Ryan was wonderful. He kept our room clean and was very helpful whenever we saw him, but he also never suggested that we leave the room so that he could clean it and move on (something I've experienced on several other cruise lines). He also helped track down our missing bag on embarkation day which I really appreciated.

Our dining room team was amazing. They had a challenge thrown at them with a special holiday menu on New Year's Eve, the first night of the cruise, but they didn't let it phase them. They addressed us by name every night and quickly realized that we were a group they could joke around with. In Animator's Palate, our table was located on the other side of the dining room from their other tables. We noticed that they leaned on other serving teams when they needed to in order to make sure that we received our food on time. The teamwork that I experienced in the dining room was very impressive to me - that's a reflection of great leadership.

I often see people ask, "What does the Head Waiter do, and why do I need to tip him? He didn't do anything for me!" In my experience, if you see your Head Waiter often, that means either things are going very well, or you're the "problem" (haha, I mean that affectionately - it could be special dietary restrictions, special requests, or a myriad of other reasons that someone requires more attention). The truth is, you can see the work that the Head Waiter is doing in the level of service of his or her dining teams. If you have an efficient and friendly team, that most likely means that they have great leadership.

Aaron Review

Aaron's rating: 9/10
I think service is always very high on Disney. Dining crew was by far the friendliest, and they're also the crew we interact with the most. Our stateroom attendant was nice. When getting drinks, everyone was very friendly - no problems there (unlike on Celebrity Summit).

Design and Aesthetics: 10/10

The Disney Fantasy is my vibe. I love the classic exterior that is nostalgic of transatlantic ocean liners. DCL does a fantastic job of maintaining their ships exteriors. I really like Art Nouveau, so the grand atrium fits my aesthetic. The interior feels classic and high-end. This was a very smart design approach because unlike other 10+ year old ships, the Disney Fantasy is not showing its age, and it hasn't even had a significant "reimagining."

Speaking of reimagining.... the Disney Dream would most likely receive an extensive reimagining first. Perhaps a significant dry dock is in the future for Dream/Fantasy after Disney Treasure sets sail.

Aaron Review

Aaron's rating: 7.5/10
I thought the design was great, but I didn't like the overall organization of the ship. The Fantasy felt just a little too big, and it wasn't nearly as easy to navigate as the Wonder. The decor and theming was really great and nicely executed. I thought The Tube was themed very well, even though I personally didn't like the UK theme.... same with the martini bar and carousel area, but the finishes were high-quality, and well-executed. Fot the ship being so big, there wasn't a lot of transparency or viewpoints throughout the ship.

Cabin: 10/10

We booked Guaranteed Navigator Verandah Staterooms, and lucked out with three side-by-side Deluxe Family Oceanview Staterooms with Verandahs. The Family Verandah Staterooms are HUGE (well, huge as far as cruise ship staterooms go)! It's 299 square feet, including the verandah (about 50 square feet larger than the Deluxe Oceanview Stateroom with Verandah).

The stateroom features a split bathroom setup - a toilet and sink in one bathroom and a shower and sink in the other. It's a feature that I'm sure is helpful for families sharing the room, but I wouldn't consider it necessary if there are only two people in the stateroom. I prefer to do my makeup and hair at the vanity in the stateroom rather than the bathroom, so I wouldn't say that the split bath gained us any efficiency. What I loved about the bathroom was the tub with the rainfall showerhead - plenty of space to set shampoo bottles and such (storage/shelf space is often an issue in cruise cabins that only have tiny standing showers).

The queen bed doesn't split into a twin configuration like on other cruise ships, but that's a non-issue for me. This is actually the comfiest mattress I think I've experienced on a cruise ship, and I wonder if that's due to it being a dedicated queen. There's lots of seating space in the living area, and Aaron and I hosted the rest of the family in our room on New Year's Eve, and it did not feel crowded.

Aaron Review

Aaron's rating: 9/10
The room was great. It was big and easy to get ready in. Also nice and cool in there. We kept it clean and tidy throughout the cruise, and I thought our layout was better than Rachel and Landon's (they had a murphy bed by the balcony).

Total Score: 89.5/10

I love sailing Disney Cruise Line, and we had a great time on this cruise. As a group of six adults with no children, we are not DCL's target audience, but we still really enjoy the exceptional quality and level of service that DCL delivers. I think that Landon missed having a casino onboard, but aside from that, the Disney Fantasy did not disappoint.

My total score dropped 0.5 from the first time I rated the Disney Fantasy in 2014. What's interesting is that while I lowered my score for Itinerary and Novelties, I actually increased my score for Activities and Dining. I think this is a combination of my perspective and the things that I value shifting over the past nine years, as well as the cruise industry continuing to progress and shift passenger experience and expectations.

The other thing that's shifted for me is my reason for sailing/not sailing DCL. In 2014, I concluded this review by noting how much more expensive Disney is than other cruise lines. For me as a Cast Member on this sailing, that is no longer (always) the case (I feel like I should add a note here that discounted Cast Member fares are subject to availability and have a lot of restrictions on qualifications to book). With the discounted rate, this was actually the most affordable cruise option for us over New Year's (compared to Royal Caribbean and Norwegian). This is due to a few factors - the cost of cruising has significantly increased since the 2022 when the industry bounced back after the pandemic. I've noticed even more fare increases this year (2023). At the end of 2022, people were still skeptical about cruising - which I presume is why I was able to get a discounted rate for one of the busiest cruising weeks of the year. In 2023, I noticed a significant reduction in the number of discounted sailings available to Cast Members, so who knows if I'll ever luck out with a discounted Peak Week again.

So let's just say that cost isn't the main prohibitive factor keeping me from booking DCL. The main reason I look to other cruise lines is because with the smaller fleet of ships, the itineraries are quite generic and repetitive. With the fleet expanding to seven ships, I'm optimistic about having more itinerary variety in the future. This summer, the Wish took over the Dream's 3 and 4-night Bahamian cruises, and the Dream sailed to Europe and had a great variety of European cruise itineraries. The Treasure is set to take over the Fantasy's Eastern/Western Caribbean routes beginning Christmas 2024. I was excited for the future Fantasy itineraries, but it looks like they're just moving her down to Fort Lauderdale to sail 3/4/5-night Bahamian routes in 2025. I guess that makes sense, given the eminent opening of Disney's new Bahamian private island, Lighthouse Point. Most of the Fantasy's 2025 itineraries include both Castaway Cay and Lighthouse Point.... that's an itinerary I'm definitely interested in.

Aaron Review

Aaron's rating: 80.5/100
I think I appreciate Disney Cruise Line in general. I like that I was able to experience a larger Disney ship, and it proved to me that bigger is not always better. Overall, I had a great time on and off the ship. Great way to ring in 2023!

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