Meaning and Magic on a Disney Cruise: Part 2

Read Part 1 here…

Day 3: Valletta (Malta)

Malta isn’t a place that I would go out of my way to visit. Its capital, Valletta, has plenty of charm and interesting architecture – a legacy from the incessant invasions and occupations by Greeks, Romans, Sicilians, French, British, and a bunch of other people you haven’t heard of before – but when you’re on a cruise that’s also going to Carthage, Naples, Rome, and to the Cinqueterre, you can’t help but think Malta is a bit of a filler.

Malta cruise terminal

A slightly odd thing about the otherwise lovely cruise terminal in Valletta is that it has two original buildings joined by a new facade, designed to blend in. Behind the facade is a car park – you can see it through the doors and windows. Maybe they ran out of money.

After walking around the alleyways, gardens, and cathedral, and having our first gelato of the trip, we headed back. On our way, we passed by a small park containing lots of lazy, contented cats enjoying the sun; their presence was explained by ‘Cat Cafe’ that gives away food and drink. Very nice.

Tonight, we were in Animator’s Palate for dinner. This is an interesting and gimmicky restaurant whose conceit is that, as the evening goes on, the white walls and empty painting frames gradually become filled with colour and pictures and videos. It sounds neat, and it probably was, about fifteen years ago, but today it comes across as rather low-tech for something that supposedly cost millions to build; it didn’t help that the video screen next to us wasn’t working. Of course, Disney’s new ship, the Dream, has an upgraded version with all sorts of new screens and display technologies that will look equally old in, oh, five years time.

The Animator’s Palate is unique on the Magic for another reason – it’s not trying to look like something else. Practically every restaurant and bar on the ship is modelled on some popular ideal; Parrot Cay is a fun Caribbean restaurant, Rockin’ Bar D’s (yes, that’s its real name) is a bar/club kitted out with retro yet cool posters and props, Cove is basically Starbucks but nicer.

You wonder what the point of this is, since in most cities, you’d be able to find places with more genuine atmosphere and history and quality than any of these ersatz venues; you could go to a great Caribbean restaurant, followed up by a bar with real character, and then (if you’re not in the UK), a good independent cafe. The two things you’d be missing are:

a) The fact that on the Magic, these venues are all a maximum of 5 minutes apart and completely safe
b) While they may lack genuine character, they are probably closer to the Platonic ideal of such venues held in the average American’s mind

Take Palo, for example. Palo appears to have been drawn directly out of the minds of millions of North Americans, just like Dumbledore using his wand to draw memories out of people in Harry Potter (I couldn’t think of a suitable Disney analogy). A silver-tongued maitre’d guides you inside with humorous tales of his travels, past all sorts of expensive looking wines and knick-knacks in cabinets, past an open kitchen (so you can see that you aren’t sharing the same food as everyone else on the cruise), to a table served by incredibly attentive waiters with perfect knowledge of the menu, always giving you appetisers and jokes, etc, etc.

Basically, Palo is unreal. I don’t think there are any Italian restaurants like it, and I don’t think there ever were – but I’m sure it’s very close to the imagined perfect Italian restaurant. Still, the vast majority of cruisers are very happy with it – perhaps they prefer it to the real thing, which I suppose is the entire point of Disney.

On Games: If you’re a kid or a teen who likes games (i.e. pretty much all kids), then you’ll like Disney cruises, because there are countless games of Rock Band and Nintendo and Xbox games scheduled in the kids’ areas. However, if you’re an adult, you’re SOL – there is nary a game of Rock Band or indeed any other videogame to be found at any reasonable hour. Yes, there were a couple scheduled at, like, 2pm when we were Rome – exactly how many people are going to go to that?

It’s baffling. Since many of the activities for adults were mixers, aimed to getting people to meet new friends, like karaoke or party games, why not use videogames like the Nintendo Wii or Rock Band to the same effect? When the average age of gamers has reached 32, it’s hardly appropriate to ignore all of the adults on the cruise who love playing games. I mean, there were more boardgame events scheduled than videogame events, which is just ridiculous in this day and age (and I say that as a boardgame enthusiast).

So I say to you, Disney: get your shit together. Everyone at our dinner table was annoyed at the endless gaming opportunities the kids and teens had, and the total lack of games for the adults.

Day 4: Tunisia

Tunisia, like Malta, was a mildly diverting curiosity. That said, it is the site of Carthage:

There’s still plenty of pretty substantial Roman ruins to look around, including the baths and a theatre. On our way to Sidi Bou Said, we also drove by a number of intriguing houses and other buildings, which would’ve been preferable to visiting that awful tourist trap; yes, Sidi Bou Said looks nice and has some tasty fried treats, but it’s just packed full of tourists and hawkers. Our guide wasn’t terribly good either, which made me wonder about the future of tourist guides in an augmented-reality world; will we just walk around with headphones and display glasses, watching videos from Dorling Kindersley and Lonely Planet tagged to each location?

It’s an interesting prospect, given the variability of guides; and indeed, Disney performers. Many of the Disney performers you see at theme parks and cruises are working off some kind of script, and anything scripted can be automated, which is potentially bad news for humans; that is, unless the serendipity that human performers bring adds more than the potential savings from automation.

Tonight’s show was called ‘Once Upon a Song’, a medley of lesser-known and distressingly-altered Disney songs. One of the more memorable songs was ‘When She Loved Me’ (a rather sad song by Sarah McLachlan in Toy Story 2) but reworded so that it was ‘When Somebody Loved Me’; this was then followed by more up-tempo stuff like ‘A Whole New World’ done power-ballad style. I can’t imagine that the songwriters and filmmakers thought their songs would be used in this way, merged into a single fuzzy ball of generalised loving, achieving and hoping.

Above the stage were two large screens showing clips from movies, including nicely edited-together waltz sequences from Cindarella, Beauty and the Beast, and some other lesser Disney movie. It’s notable that you probably couldn’t do this sort of thing nearly as well with real fairytales, which are altogether much darker. No, these medleys work best with Disney fairytales that all follow a similar plot; and if you have any that dare to defy that plot (e.g. Up), into the Disney stirring pot they go, and when they come out, they’ll have dissolved into the happy mush anyways.

At the end of the show, when a giant drawing of Walt, complete with his signature, appeared on the screens, all the performers turned around and bowed to him. Creepy, I thought.

Having said that, it was diverting enough and the performers were reasonable singers, andwould’ve sounded even better if they hadn’t had to belt it out over speakers that were cranked to 11. Naturally, they were given a standing ovation; any less would’ve been disappointing, given that it was a mostly-American audience of Disney fans, on a Disney cruise.

Coming up in Part 3: The Amalfi Coast, Pompeii, Rome, and the cleanest toilets in the world

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