Combining an exhilarating trip to Walt Disney World with a relaxing Disney cruise to the Bahamas gives time-poor business leaders much-needed family time and a chance to get the creative juices flowing
One million Brits a year visit Orlando, Florida and for most the lure is the magic of nearby Disney World. Still seen as a holiday of a lifetime – even by those who visit several times – it’s a fairy dust-sprinkled getaway that you know you’re not going to forget. For the time-poor, always-on business leader it’s not only a chance to kick back with family but also to marvel at how the entertainment giant can triumph in new sectors while cementing the values of its founder and visionary, Walt Disney, installed almost a century ago. Combining a stay at the theme park resorts with a three-night Disney Cruise Line escape to Bahamian paradise provides the mix of adrenaline-pumped thrills and relaxation for all ages that Disney justifiably dubs the “ultimate holiday”.
On this nine-day trip we spent our first four nights at Animal Kingdom Lodge, one of 27 Disney-themed resorts within Disney World and the largest of the eight deluxe offerings. The African-themed resort, with its dark wood lobby and suspended roof held by huge tree-like pillars, is set within a savannah where wildlife roam freely. Nothing quite shifts the jet lag after a nine-hour flight than the sight of giraffes grazing and zebras playing a game of one-upmanship with waterbuck from your balcony. From Jiko restaurant’s menu – a mix of African and Mediterranean influences – we picked the grilled buffalo rib eye, rainbow Swiss chard with sweet peppers and smoked bacon washed down with a glass of South African syrah before turning in.
Only as we set off next day could we appreciate the scale of Disney World. At 43 square miles – the size of Manchester – it hosts four theme parks, two water parks, a shopping mall, camping grounds and golf courses, linked by highways, monorail and frequent – and free – Disney buses for those who prefer not to hire a car. If you can, give yourself at least a day to visit each park.
Donning Mickey Mouse ears, we started our adventure at Magic Kingdom, the oldest of the parks (opened in 1971, some five years after Disney’s death) with its iconic centrepiece, Cinderella Castle. From the weatherboard splendour of Main Street USA – home of the daily parade of popular characters atop jaw-dropping mechanical floats – six ‘lands’ spike out, including Fantasyland, with the newly opened Seven Dwarfs Mine Train attraction, and Adventureland, whose Pirates of the Caribbean ride inspired the movie franchise. With our cameras snapping every turn, it’s hard not be swept up in the excitement, buzz, colours and pure fantasy of it all. Three decades of maturity evaporate at the sight of the giant Mickey and Minnie coming in for a hug – you can’t help but wave, cuddle and take endless selfies with toon-world’s most famous. The positive culture of staff (known as cast members) supervising the attractions is infectious.
In the days that followed we got a taste of the other parks. In Disney’s Hollywood Studios the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, with a gut-wrenching 39mph drop over 13 floors, leaves you green, while the adrenaline-swirling Rock’n’Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith will strike the right chord for thrillseekers.
The park is being extended to include the new Star Wars Land, a result of Disney’s $4bn (£3.26bn) purchase of Lucasfilm. For now Star Tours, starring crowd pleasers C-3PO and R2-D2, and the nightly Star Wars fireworks and laser light show with scenes from the films projected onto buildings, should satisfy fans old and new.
Epcot celebrates technological achievement. Its showpiece is Spaceship Earth, an 18-storey geodesic sphere. Don’t miss Soarin’, a fully immersive attraction that suspends you in the air in front of an 80ft 4K HD curved projection screen to simulate a bird’s-eye view across the globe. With feet back on firm ground we browsed the streets of World Showcase – a world’s fair-style attraction of 11 country pavilions including a recreation of a pub and a thatched cottage selling Twinings tea. Guess which country that represents! The Frozen Ever After ride in the Norway pavilion has had an impact on the average age of Epcot visitors as children queue to see their favourite film characters, Elsa, Anna and Olaf the snowman. Yes, we sang along.
Packing in as many attractions as possible is high on any visitor’s list but, if you can resist an early night, the restaurants are tailored to all budgets, all tastes and a growing audience of couples. In a country known for fast food – often supersized – the smorgasbord of fine-dining restaurants across the resorts was a welcome surprise. At California Grill, which specialises in contemporary dining, we savoured crispy dragon roll sushi while watching fireworks erupt over the Magic Kingdom from our 15th-floor vantage point.
The modern Morimoto, with its double-height ceilings, stylish black interior and 20ft chandeliers, is a bustling fusion of Asian cuisines. We made short shrift of its boneless ribs. Seafood lovers shouldn’t miss Flying Fish at the spectacular BoardWalk resort. Forgoing caviar we opted for the wild Gulf shrimp followed by plancha-seared Hokkaido scallops, though the maple fig bacon Manhattan was a one-glass-only sweet extravagance that our teeth won’t forget in a hurry.
Life on the ocean wave
Next morning, an hour’s ride on a Disney Cruise Line coach – complete with portholes and snaps of Donald Duck’s family – took us to Port Canaveral on Florida’s east coast, where we were met by the imposing sight of the 14-deck Disney Dream rising from the ocean. With its smart black hull with yellow lining and 14ft stainless steel and fibreglass Sorcerer Mickey Mouse on the stern, at 1,115ft it’s longer than the Eiffel Tower is tall.
This was our first time on a cruise ship. The ship’s art deco atrium lobby is dazzling. Spanning three decks, it is overlooked by two tiers of ornate balconies with monochrome friezes featuring the studio’s most famous cartoon characters. The bronze statue of Donald Duck in admiral attire at the foot of a sweeping, royal blue and gold carpeted staircase serves as a reminder that this herculean structure sails. Throughout the ship designers have balanced trademark Disney with high-end expectation. Enchanting pastel artwork complements subtle Mickey silhouettes etched in bronze and a razzmatazz of geometric designs.
The Disney Dream has 1,250 spacious staterooms (cabins), almost all with a private veranda. As the ship filled, excitable children began to feast on the unlimited ice cream. Youngsters have a whole deck dedicated to them with a nursery, kids’ club and teenage areas. Staffed by a team of trained counsellors and with stringent safeguards to keep adults out, the facilities include discos, arts and crafts, drama classes, gaming areas and even a life-size mock-up of the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars.
Adults are rewarded with over-18s areas including restaurants, coffee shops, pools, hot tubs, bars and nightclubs. The Senses Spa and Salon has a fully stocked gym offering unrivalled ocean views, along with the treatments, a barbershop, teeth whitening and even metabolic testing. We treated ourselves to an hour in the Tropical Rainforest, an oasis containing sauna and steam room. The customary sail-away party – a musical medley performed by Captain Mickey in time to the ship’s blasting foghorn – was moved indoors owing to a brief shower. No matter, we sang our way to the theatre for the first of a twice-nightly Broadway-style show celebrating the sights and sounds of Disney musicals.
The Disney Dream also has a separate cinema showing the studio’s new releases and vintage classics plus a giant screen attached to the main funnel – ‘funnel vision’ – for those who prefer to watch movies from the warmth of the open-air swimming pool. In a feat of engineering there’s also an elevated water slide that snakes around the top deck and over the side of the ship. This is Disney, after all. In addition to an all-you-can-eat buffet, there is a plentiful choice of restaurants. With bright, bold colours and oversized displays, the all-American Animator’s Palate satisfied our first-night hunger. This is one for families with digital displays bringing hand-drawn sketches of Finding Nemo to life.
Having grown accustomed to the gentle motion of the vessel as it journeyed towards the Bahamas, we docked early the next morning in the capital, Nassau. From the selection of ‘port adventures’ on offer, including walking trails and dolphin watching, we chose the short catamaran ride to the Blue Lagoon, a tiny sand island, where we spent a blissful few hours under the winter sun away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Back on board, and after a second night of Disney musicals – the villains taking centre stage this time – we had reservations at Palo, an adults-only fine-dining Italian restaurant. Our waiter’s recommendations couldn’t have been more perfect: soft potato gnocchi in tomato sauce with kale, calamari and prawns to start followed by slow-roasted centre-cut veal shank with gremolata and risotto Milanese. The chocolate soufflé prepared fresh to order and served with vanilla bean and chocolate sauce is a Disney Cruise Line must-have.
We could have happily spent the rest of the evening polishing off another bottle of red from the cellar but we had a further date. Pirate Night is a Disney Dream institution, and, while we limited our costume to the red bandanas left in our stateroom, others went the full Jack Sparrow, and the party reached its crescendo with a marvellous open-deck fireworks display.
If the evening felt like a dream, pulling back the curtains next morning, some 90 miles away, to an idyllic balcony view of calm turquoise waters, gently swaying palm trees and sandy beaches was an eye-rubbing wonder. Castaway Cay is Disney’s 1,000-acre private island, secured on a 99-year lease from the Bahamian government since 1997, with only a skeleton staff remaining onshore after the cruise ships depart. Our day in paradise started with a calming full-body couple’s Swedish massage in a wooden stilted cabana on the edge of the adults-only beach.
For the wilder members of our party, parascending and jet skiing were also on offer, but we chose a more sedate afternoon excursion to a white, deserted sandbank some 10 minutes’ boat ride away. Crescent shaped and barely wider than a family-sized car it rises from the warm, turquoise waters under the blazing sun. Our trail of footprints etched in marshmallow sand like Robinson Crusoe.
Sun-kissed and spoilt rotten, we rounded off our holiday in style in the marble floored, ballroom-style Royal Palace restaurant, where we chose escargot followed by a tender Dijon-crusted rack of lamb from the French-inspired menu. With its regal rose furnishings and elaborate chandeliers, this is a decadent celebration of Disney fairy tales with hand-painted pictures of Cinderella, Snow White and Belle from Beauty and the Beast hung from the walls.
Returning to Florida next morning, our journey was almost over. Just time to visit Disney Springs – the new shopping and eating destination in Disney World. Stocking up on souvenirs, it was hard not to recall the Disney patriarch’s cautioning about the behemoth he had created: “I only hope that we don’t lose sight of one thing – that it was all started by a mouse.”
If that doesn’t convince a visionary business leader of the value of buying a Mickey Mouse mug for their desk, what will?
Ultimate Disney holiday slideshow (click to enlarge)
Director flew to Orlando with Virgin Atlantic from Gatwick.
Ultimate Disney accommodation
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