Ah, new-boat smell.
On the Disney Dream, a ship with less than a month of sailing time under her keel, I sniffed my way around 14 decks and 1,250 staterooms. I stuck my nose into six restaurants, two theaters, one spa and one mouse face. I stood in the airy atrium, beneath a gemstone-colored chandelier that would look divine in my imaginary ballroom, and breathed in deeply.
And that's where I smelled it: a subtle note of sweetness.
Oh wait, that was my mind talking, not my nose. The true scent of the Disney Dream was chlorine and suntan lotion, popcorn and fruity cocktails and, depending on the hour and the accident, cologne and kids. But on this 130,000-ton vessel, more than 40 percent larger than its two sister ships and more technologically advanced, imagination trumps reality.
"I like the comfort and the escape of Disney," said Sharon Clauss, a Disney cruise veteran on her first Dream voyage. "It's like being in a totally magical place."
I could use a little magic - mine was running low - so earlier this month, I banished my sensible, unsentimental self and entered a squeaky-clean fantasyland of giant mice with no predators and princesses who never lose their fortunes. For three nights and two ports of call, I did my utmost to stifle my sardonic self - the rascal who wonders whether the character actors ever get wasted and trot around naked beneath their costumes - and let myself fall blissfully into the Dream.
I have to admit, she's a looker.
Unlike the floating milk cartons that ply the Caribbean, the Dream stands out with a blue hull as dark as the ocean deep and the sleek, clean lines of a crisp button-down shirt. Mickey silhouettes on the red funnels and the figure of "Fantasia" Mickey dangling from the stern are the only winks to the Big Daddy creator.
The interior decor is equally tasteful, a flashback to the golden age of seafaring. In the public areas, striped couches with high backs and tasseled pillows encourage loafing, and chandeliers twinkle like the Milky Way. Two thrones arranged near murals of Princes Charming finding their love matches invite loyalists to rest their tired dogs.
"You get an evolution of concept," said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of Cruise Critic, an online cruising resource. "It captures the best of the retro liners and also the new stuff."
A heap of anticipation bubbled around the arrival of the Dream, spurred by a 12-year drought since Disney last commissioned a ship. The company now boasts three - the other two are the Magic, launched in 1998, and the Wonder, released a year later - with one more on the way: In March 2012, the cruise line will unveil the Fantasy, the Dream's twin in size and scope.
The latest ship follows Walt Disney's precept that "you can't top pigs with pigs." Meaning: Don't try to duplicate past successes. (The reference is to the successful Three Little Pigs cartoon, "Silly Symphonies," and its failed sequels.)
"To me, it looks like a five-star hotel," said Susan Reid, a Florida resident who celebrated her 50th (Disney cruise, not birthday) on a recent three-nighter to Nassau and Castaway Cay, Disney's very own 1,000-acre Bahamian island. "I'm used to the small, intimate boats, but I'll get used to this."
With Pixar as a benchmark, the pressure's on to impress starry-eyed kids and jaded adults. All inside staterooms feature a Magical Porthole that displays real-time images of the world outside, such as the teeming dock. Disney characters also pop up on the screen, bringing you back to non-reality. In the Animator's Palette, the restaurant walls speak directly to diners. Crush, the wisecracking turtle from "Finding Nemo," ribs guests mid-meal.
"What's that crazy thing you're pointing at me?" he asked a woman who had abandoned her appetizer to train a video camera on the character. "Wait, let me get ready for my close-up." He put flipper to face, elongated all body parts not encased in a shell and grinned cheekily.
In the same vein, several artworks leave their two-dimensional borders and spring to life. On Deck 5, a pirate ship picture trades fire with a fortress. In the art gallery, an image of Minnie Mouse as the Mona Lisa blinks her eyes while a miniature ship sails by in the background.
Hardly resistant to the spell, I rearranged my evening plans to steer a captain's wheel set before a nautical scene featuring video-game-style challenges. Small advancements only fed the fever: By bumping the ship into the so-called prizes (like Angry Birds hitting their targets), I scored a treasure chest and tangled with a crocodile. I never cracked open the giant clamshell and am resigned to never knowing what secret lived inside.
My performance vastly improved on the Midship Detective Agency Game, a shipwide scavenger hunt that employs the animated art. On a rainy day at Castaway Cay, the decks were swimming with players of all ages.
"My wife asked me, 'Why does a 40-year-old man want to play this game?' " said the balding participant behind me as we waited our turn. The obvious answer: Why wouldn't he?
In the game, guests receive a badge and a list of suspects, then race around the ship looking for clues to certain cases. (I chose the stolen art caper, though the missing Dalmatian puppy appeared to be more popular.) The badge works like a joystick or a Wii controller: Move it to and fro in front of each image and you can virtually unrivet steel bolts, push away fish and sweep away dust to reveal props that lead to the culprit. In my case, red lipstick and seeds helped me suss out the Evil Queen. Trust me, she got hers.
Despite the new features - add to that list the upscale Remy restaurant, the Enchanted Garden restaurant and the AquaDuck, an elevated water coaster - Disney retains many of its old stalwarts. Throughout the day, Mickey, Minnie, Donald Duck, Chip and Dale, Cinderella, Goofy, Pluto and some others I've never seen before (Pain? Max?) hold court around the ship. Kids line up as if they were greeting God at heaven's gate, holding out their autograph books or going in for a hug or a tug of the nose.
My first front-row sighting was of Cinderella, who embraced a mob of mini-shes, most of them darling in their sparkly dresses but some more bridesmaidish in high heels and five-step hairdos. Too self-conscious to approach the princess, who looked as real as a Southern debutante, I checked the information board for a meet-and-greet more suitable for an uncertain beginner:
7:45-8:05 p.m., Donald Duck
8:30-8:50 p.m., Daisy Duck
9:45-10 p.m., Chip and Dale
And working the late shift . . .
10:15-10:30 p.m., Goofy and Pluto
Despite the fur- or feather-coated options, I decided that I wasn't quite ready. I wandered off to catch a Disney movie ("Tangled"), hoping that the magic would find its way through my pores and into my heart.
Most of the ship's diversions are, of course, Disney-centric. The Broadway-style shows incorporate characters, songs and clips from the company's iconic movies, and the theaters roll only Disney films, including such first-runs as "Gnomeo and Juliet." Even the TVs in the staterooms are heavily edited: You can watch ABC (Disney-owned), CNN, ESPN (another Disney holding) and a full roster of D-approved flicks, from classics (the "Toy Story" franchise) to flops ("Life as We Know It").
On other cruises, I've learned how to fold towels in the shape of jungle creatures and to fox-trot. On the Dream, I learned how to draw Disney figures.
Before slipping out for an afternoon in Nassau, I sat down with pencil, paper and instructor Aussie Dave. The crew member had low aspirations for us, but he was just being realistic.