If you have children, and you want to take a cruise, it's gotta be with Disney. Right?
That conventional wisdom is strongly reinforced when you sail on Uncle Walt's newest ship, the gleaming, 4,000-passenger Fantasy. It's the third Disney cruise we've taken as a family, and it's everything Disney promises it will be.
But Disney doesn't rule the seven seas when it comes to the growing market for family cruises. There is another.
Last summer, we boarded the NCL Epic, a megaship on a special mission in the Western Mediterranean. It was a Nickelodeon-theme cruise, featuring the likes of SpongeBob, FanBoy and Jimmy Neutron, plus stars from iCarly and Victorious, popular live-action sitcoms on the network.
You can see where this is going, can't you?
We had a terrific time on the Epic, and it set a high bar for family cruises. But after sailing on the Fantasy, we're deeply conflicted. People have asked us, "Who would you cruise with?" -- and we hesitate.
Who would we cruise with?
In some ways, it's not fair to compare these two cruise experiences. I saw the Disney Fantasy at her christening in New York earlier this year, and then the whole family took a preview sailing in the Bahamas in late March. It's a year-round family cruise line.
On the Epic and other NCL ships, the Nick sailing is more of a recurring theme cruise, but that doesn't really describe it, because it's a far more (pardon this) immersive experience. And I'm not just talking about getting slimed, although there is that.
So here's the side-by-side comparison.
The Disney cruise experience is structured, from the moment you board the ship and your name is cheerfully announced as you walk into the atrium. Everything is timed, from dinner seatings to shows to character appearances. Even a ship as large as the Fantasy seems almost intimate compared with the larger Epic. It's hard to tell if the Fantasy was built for adults or kids, which is exactly the point. Everyone feels special. That's Disney magic.
The latest and greatest Disney attractions on the Fantasy include a bigger and better Acquaduck "watercoaster," a store where you can take your daughter for a princess makeover called the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique and a new interactive dining experience, the Animators Palate.
We've argued about how best to summarize each one -- but decided that if we wrote any more than this, we'd have to offer a spoiler alert warning for this story. Needless to say, each is a carefully-planned Disney experience worthy of the brand.
For the grown-ups, we'd highly recommend dinner at its adults-only French restaurant, Remy. As in the rat from the Disney movie. We'll say no more.
NCL is know for its more unstructured "freestyle" cruising, which means you have more flexibility than on a traditional cruise line. Instead of being assigned a dining time, you're given dining choices. And on a ship as large as the Epic, there are many. No question about who this ship is designed for; it's meant for the adults. There's gambling and on our Mediterranean cruise we couldn't escape the smokers. But Nick does an absolutely amazing job of turning the vessel into one that looks as if it were built from the hull up with little ones in mind.
But the kids will remember it for other reasons. They met Tom Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob, and he serenaded our youngest daughter, Erysse. We attended several interactive Nick events, and of course we saw an entire family get slimed. OK, so Dora the Explorer is no Disney princess, but that didn't seem to matter to the children. They were thrilled.
So who's better? Well, we've only sailed on one NCL ship -- the magnificent Epic -- versus three Disney ships. The Disney cruise was also our most recent, so we'll readily admit to our bias.
Here's where we could use some help. Maybe you've sailed on one or both of these ships, and have a few thoughts on the subject.
Or maybe we could just put it to a vote?
Follow Kari Haugeto on Twitter: www.twitter.com/awayishome