Magic: elegant outside, surprisingly ordinary inside

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Southeast bureau chief Ernest Blum was a passenger aboard the maiden voyage of the Disney Magic. As reported, the maiden voyage did not go as smoothly as it could have, problems including electronic keys that wouldn't open locks and a lack of personnel. Blum took a look here not at the operation of the vessel but at its interior and exterior design details. His impressions follow:

PORT CANAVERAL, Fla. -- With its two classic red funnels, elongated bowline and prominent glass bridge, the 83,500-ton Disney Magic is a reinvention of the look of the great classic liners.

kiddie poolThe $350 million ship, designed as a unique blend of cruising and Disney magic, offers notable innovations, beginning with the spacious and ingenious family staterooms. The vessel's dedicated spaces for kids, from ages 3 to 17, also set a new standard at sea.

Entertainment is not only up to Disney's usual standards, but the venue in the 977-seat Walt Disney Theater gives new meaning to the phrase "not a bad seat in the house." The theater is a tour de force, with a magnificent Art Deco decor, tiered seating free of obstructing columns and a huge, state-of-the-art stage.

The Sessions piano bar, a classic space that exudes 1930s elegance, seems transported intact from the Queen Mary.

Passengers will be talking about Animator's Palette, one of the three main restaurants, which offers a visual and sound extravaganza of Disney animation through the decades. For more sophisticated tastes, the adults-only Palo restaurant, featuring northern Italian cuisine, is on a par in food and service with top New York restaurants. (The downside, of course, is that it overshadows the ship's other restaurants--and not everyone can reserve a seat.)

But for all the assortment of notable rooms, the Disney Magic's calling card is its silhouette. As the commemorative book, "Disney Magic: The Launching of a Dream," makes clear, the design of the ship's exterior went far beyond the responsibility of Disney Cruise Line, extending into the highest level of the Walt Disney Co.

Author John Heminway writes that Disney chairman Michael Eisner directed the conception, rejecting the preliminary sketches of three of the cruise industry's foremost designers. That group included Njal Eide, creator of the genre of seagoing atriums; the team of Peter Yran and Bjorn Storbraaten, who designed staterooms on most of the industry's luxury ships, and Robert Tillberg, who created some of the industry's most fashionable public spaces. Eisner, dissatisfied with their initial efforts, summoned the prestigious group to his Los Angeles office and gave them new marching orders: "Go home and make a modern classic," he said. "I want you to out-tradition tradition."

As it happened, the overall concept for the ship's exterior was to be delivered by Hartmut Esslinger, whose company, Frogdesign, is credited with redesigns of such products as the Apple Macintosh computer, Sony's Trinitron television and Vuitton luggage. Also assuming a key role was Wing Chao, head of Walt Disney Imagineering. Overseeing them was Eisner, who said he attended five meetings for each public room on the ship and journeyed to Italy to see lifesize mockups of the ship's staterooms.

The result is in the Disney tradition, a marine icon, the equivalent of Cinderella's Castle in the Magic Kingdom.

Despite the triumph of the ship's exterior, the same inspiration does not appear to extend to the Disney Magic's overall interior design. Taken as an ensemble rather than a collection of some notable rooms, the interior is far from being a showplace.

Eschewing the soaring atriums that dominate contemporary ship design, the Disney Magic's three-deck-high atrium is comparatively squat and narrow. Most other public spaces on the ship are relatively modest, with a subdued but pleasant Art Deco decor. Many passengers, of course, will appreciate this intimacy, but some experienced cruisers may miss the glamour and panache of other megaliners.

Curiously, for a company that created the Magic Kingdom's Main Street, there is no analogous thoroughfare on the Disney Magic. The atrium does not serve as a town center, if one excludes its purser's desks. There are relatively few sofas or chairs and no live music, and the space does not serve as a day-and-night lounge, as on some other recent ships. Rather than being a city at sea, the Disney Magic gives the impression of being several suburbs at sea.

The three main restaurants are located toward the aft of the ship, along with a piano bar and a disco; a closed-off, adults-only entertainment area is set forward; a boutique area is located near the main showroom at the bow. An impressive but isolated bingo theater is in still another area, and a bar and television-sports amphitheater on the top deck is fitted inside the ship's non-functional stack.

Amid the sprawl, some parts of the ship remain dull and lifeless. This was true even of the adults-only entertainment area, whose relative isolation resulted in sparse use on the maiden voyage. Perhaps many passengers couldn't find the place. Adding to the lackluster feeling is the absence of a casino, which Disney decided against but has not replaced with an alternative generator of crowd excitement.

Another departure from many modern cruise ships is the dearth of public rooms with sea vistas. The faux stack, although out of the way, could serve as a commanding outlook. However, the windows are curtained to improve views of the oversize TV screen.

The showy, two-deck-high expanse of glass at the bow might seem to promise such vistas, particularly above the bridge, but one discovers that the area is occupied by the ship's gym, with the window space reserved for barely more than a half-dozen persons on workout machines. Overlooking the stern is Topsiders, the Lido-style restaurant, but one has to be on the unshaded outside terrace to fully enjoy the view.

For a ship designed to invoke the glories of the golden age of sea travel, the designers neglected to make provision for classic lounge chairs on the outside promenade deck. There is no library or card room, other classic standards.

However, the Disney Magic offers several major design innovations, beginning with the superb staterooms, perhaps the best among all ships serving families. Allotting more room for the cabins than any other ship in the family market, Disney offers cabins that have a separate space, dividable by a curtain, for as many as three extra persons. Indeed, every cabin on the ship has a third berth in the form of a convertible sofa, comfortable to sit on as well as sleep on. Available in some cabins is a fourth bed, tucked into the ceiling. A fifth extra bed, where available, is tucked into the wall.

Another major innovation in the cabins is the bathrooms divided into a shower/bath compartment and a toilet compartment. Each compartment has its own sink, mirror and toiletries cabinet.

Agents should be warned that many of the cabins have doors to the adjoining cabins, offering flexibility in the arrangements. But when the cabins are occupied by separate parties, passengers should be prepared to hear conversations next door.

The cabin furnishings, made in Milan, Italy, are of high quality, up to the luxury standards of their designer, Yran & Storbratten. A total of 77% of the accommodations are outside, and 44% of these have private verandas. For children, the ship's three dedicated kids areas are well stocked with electronic gear, including many computers. There's also an impressive electronic-games room.

Another innovation on the ship is the sun deck, which is both utilitarian and pleasing, featuring the stacks as an aesthetic design focus. The glass fence surrounding the sun deck, however, which is designed as a windbreaker, has no sliding panels to let in air during slow passage in calm seas. At those times, the area along the sides of this deck can be sweltering.

No review of the Disney Magic would be complete without a word about Mickey and Minnie. They are available in person for autographs before dinner in the atrium. Other Disney characters welcome guests as they return from Castaway Cay, the line's splendid private island. The characters are omnipresent as icons, from discreet mouse ears on cabin lampshades to prominent artifacts, such as a statue of "Capt. Mickey" at the wheel, regaled in rainslicks.

What is the vessel's true capacity

The Disney Magic checked in at port here with a certificate to carry a total of 2,834 passengers, a limit set by the number of lifeboats on the vessel and other safety factors. The line is publicizing the ship's capacity at 2,400, but Disney officials have put the number in interviews at 2,600.

The ship's dining arrangements would seem to limit the capacity to 2,652 people, since that is the capacity of the ship's three main restaurants. However, the adults-only Palo restaurant can accommodate 272 more people, leaving open the possibility that Disney could accommodate some extra passengers on peak sailings.

The Magic actually has a total of 3,310 passenger berths, according to the builder, Fincantieri of Italy, giving it unprecedented flexibility in booking cabins for families. Compared with the ship's 1,750 lower berths, there are 1,502 extra beds in the standard cabins, not counting the suites, according to Molteni & C. of Milan, which supplied the furniture. The extra beds include 853 sofa beds, or one in each of the vessel's regular cabins.

Fact Sheet

Ship: Disney Magic
Line: Disney Cruise Line.
Size: 83,500 tons.
Passengers: 2,600
Crew: 950
Itineraries: The Disney Magic offers three-night sailings on Fridays from Port Canaveral to Nassau and Castaway Cay, Disney's private island in the Bahamas. On Mondays, the ship offers four-night sailings that include Nassau, Castaway Cay and a day at sea. Passengers can opt for a weeklong package that includes one of the two sailings, with the remainder of the week spent at Disney resorts.
Commission: 10%; 13% for AAA agencies
Reservations: (800) WDW-CRUISE.

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