Aboard the Disney Magic Toward Nassau

Dozens of kids, all sizes and shapes, are slipping and sliding in and out of Mickey Mouse's giant ears, shrieking and giggling.

These ears happen to be in a swimming pool -- a Mickey head-shaped pool to be exact, complete with double-decker water slide. Parents and grandparents look on benevolently as the never-ending lines of kids fly down the slide into the water.

``Because the grandkids are so busy, I've got time to visit with my daughter,'' said Shirley Merke, who was cruising with her husband and her daughter's family.

Suzanne Fischer was just as enthusiastic, though she wasn't crazy about the food. Her middle child, 12-year-old David, has Down syndrome, and she was thrilled the way the counselors reached out to include him in the organized programs. ``I was able to go to the spa because I knew he was well taken care of,'' said the Texas mom of three, adding her other two kids were equally happy.

``My husband and I are spending more time together here than at home, and we don't feel guilty because the kids are so happy,'' said Vikki Mattras, who was on her second Disney cruise and already has booked her third.

Certainly this should be heaven for any child. With 600 children on board the ship this weekend -- a third of the passengers on this three-day cruise -- they're guaranteed to make some new friends.

They have nearly 50 cool counselors to entertain them. An entire deck -- 15,000 square feet, far more than on any other ship -- is split between older and younger children and crammed with everything from computers loaded with the latest games to racks of dress-up clothes (want to be Cinderella? Captain Hook?), giant video games, treasure chests full of Legos and a huge indoor climbing structure designed to look like the bridge of a ship.

The programming is a lot more than baby-sitting, too. The preschoolers might have tea with Peter Pan's Wendy Darling while the 6-8-year-olds are making Flubber in the lab and their 9- and 10-year-old siblings are creating sound effects for radio spots. The preteens, meanwhile, are learning animators' secrets. The programs go nonstop -- from morning to past midnight -- and were so good, some parents joked, they wanted to join. Others griped that their kids preferred the counselors to their parents.

``This is the most we've seen him in three days,'' said Cindy Wannamaker, smiling at 11-year-old son Ryan as the family sat down to their last dinner of the cruise.

The teens haven't been forgotten, either, with no-parents-allowed coffee house and teen-only excursions. ``I thought this cruise was going to be boring, but it's not. I'd tell my friends to come,'' offered Stephanie Heringer, a 14-year-old from Arizona.

I was surprised to find I felt the same way, especially since I'm not a big fan of gigantic cruise ships or Disney World. But I have to admit Mickey & Company have pushed all the right buttons for families. I hope other cruise lines are taking notes. I especially liked:

-- Along with Minnie and Goofy, the fellow making balloon hats on hand to welcome the children as their parents checked in.

-- The oversized staterooms for families -- still smaller than hotel rooms but considerably larger than other cruise lines typically offer.

-- The program flexibility that continued when the ship was in port and, unlike other ships, allowed children to eat lunches and dinners with their counselors so parents could get a break in the adult-only restaurant, nightclub, pool or spa.

-- The three Disney channels playing on the stateroom TVs.

-- The late-afternoon burgers, hot dogs and ice-cream snacks available poolside.

-- The first-rate family entertainment.

So why isn't my 8-year-old daughter Melanie happy? It's mom's fault, of course. A contact lens mishap just before we boarded has left me with a patch over one eye -- so weird Melanie doesn't want to be seen with me. All this after I glowingly promised her a fabulous just-mom-and-Melanie time with no older siblings to cramp her style.

Finally, I cajole her into the Mickey pool (one of three aboard ship), hoping that one trip down the water slide will do the trick. I hold my breath until she surfaces -- with a grin ear-to-ear.

The trip is saved. A touch of seasickness barely slows us down. The biggest problem, I realize, is deciding what to do. Just like Disney World, it's impossible to do even half of what's offered. Soon I stop clutching my daily Personal Navigator and begin to relax.

By the time the ship docks at Castaway Cay, Disney's private island retreat in the Bahamas, Melanie is a kids' club veteran and races off the ship to join the action. But where to go first: rehearsal for the kids' farewell show or the climbing structure a few hundred yards offshore, complete with rope swings over the water? And then there's the whale dig. where the kids search for bones amid the gigantic skeleton of a whale found here some 50 years ago.

Melanie runs from the ocean to the dig, stopping just long enough to gobble a burger, pose for a photo with Goofy (the characters are everywhere) and make a new friend from North Carolina.

I'm getting grumpier and hotter by the minute as we sift the sand for whale teeth in the heat alongside Mickey Mouse. I'm thinking of my unread novel when, out of nowhere, Melanie says: ``Thanks for bringing me, mom.''

Those are the vacation moments I live for, the ones that keep me going for months. I owe you one, Mickey.

IF YOU GO: Disney offers both three- and four-day cruises that can be booked together with a stay at Walt Disney World (only one check-in required!) or, as we booked, separately. Both cruises go to Nassau and Castaway Cay. The four-day trip spends an extra day at sea. Prices for the three-day cruise start at $434 per person for adults and $179 for kids up to age 17 who are third passengers in the stateroom (more than triple that amount for deluxe accommodations). Prices for the four-day cruise start at $519 per adult and $279 for kids. The second Disney ship, the Wonder, is slated to make its first voyage in mid-August. Call 800-WDW-CRUISE or www.disneycruise.com

(c) 1999, Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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