New Orleans, La.- As we disembarked the Disney Wonder at the Port of New Orleans, a female usher at the port asked where our group was coming from and whether or not we had fun? Upon being told that we did in fact have fun and were ending a Disney Cruise the next question was simple, yet poignant. “Did they have Princess Tiana on the cruise?” she asked. 

Representation matters and when that usher learned that there was a Princess Tiana onboard, she smiled a satisfying smile. 

The Disney Wonder cruise is a wonderful way to spend a week with your family. From dinner at so many interesting restaurants to various outdoor and indoor activities to the opportunity for kids to see their favorite Disney characters onboard, it is an awesome vacation idea. 

“We’re an entertainment company that got into the cruise business,” said Yolanda Cade, Director, Public Relations, Disney Signature Experiences. Cade, a Florida A&M University alumna, recently brought her entire family on a trip last Thanksgiving. She referred to the group as “multigenerational.” 

Pictured: Donnell and Chia Suggs with their two children.

Tiana’s Place 

It didn’t take long for my family’s vacation to become more like a family reunion and less like a first-time experience. The Disney cruise from New Orleans to Cozumel, Mexico would be the first for my wife, stepdaughter, son and me in so many ways. Neither of us have been on a cruise, or in Mexico. My first time in New Orleans was last year for my seventh wedding anniversary, so even the trip to port wasn’t commonplace. A friendly face would go a long way to making this trip memorable.

As a child I always felt Disney had a way of alienating me and making me feel like there were other entertainment platforms that represented me better. There just weren’t a lot of characters that looked like me. Last year my family took a vacation to Disney World and there I found myself wrong about a lot of the misconceptions I once harbored. When the idea of taking a Disney cruise came up, I held those same feelings plus the added fear of being on the water. 

Aboard the Disney Wonder, a massive cruise ship docked on the Mississippi River, there’s a replica of one of the places I love most, New Orleans, and one of the movies I make sure my kids and I watch as often as we can, The Princess and the Frog.

Inside Tiana’s Place, named after the movie’s main character dream restaurant, there was an opportunity to feel right at home on the ship. The Crawfish Crooners, a three-man band that along with a Princess Tiana look alike, entertained my family and about two dozen others. Along with New Orleans classics like ‘When the Saints Go Marching In,’ they performed renditions of songs from The Princess and the Frog soundtrack such as ‘Down in New Orleans’, ‘Ma Belle Evangeline’ and ‘You Got To Dig A Little Deeper’.

The band was great, and the music made the atmosphere more familial, warm and more like a community as everyone sung along and clapped their hands. 

Dinner included a parade where Louis the trumpet-playing alligator from the movie and the wait staff made their way around the dining room to the sounds of The Crawfish Crooners. People were having so much fun with their kids that they joined the parade. The environment along with the service left me feeling at home on a massive cruise ship making its way down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico. 

We didn’t see Princess Tiana while we were at Disney World and that was something I immediately noticed, and thought was a missed opportunity for Disney to further reach out to Black families. We did see her on the Disney cruise, and it made a world of difference.

What I experienced on the first day on the Disney Wonder was a good way to draw in more Black families and families of color. That movie means a lot to so many people and Tiana’s Place was beyond inclusive. It’s brilliant. 

The wait staff is international. Our servers Dussell is from India and Livia is from Hungary. Both were wonderful representations of a diverse and inclusive world. 

I hope more Black families in particular, get a chance to visit Tiana’s Place. I’d like to see this become a stand-alone restaurant in New Orleans someday, or better yet in places far away from New Orleans. Tiana’s Place and the feelings I felt, the looks on my family’s faces while we were there are more than worth a trip on the Disney Wonder. 

What to watch: For your kid’s sake please take full advantage of Tiana’s Place. While we were on board a Tiana look alike didn’t make a public appearance until late into our trip. It would have been nice to see her as much as we did Belle, Moana or Rapunzel.     

The Great Disconnect

We shipped off from New Orleans on a Monday morning and for the first time in a long time I was alone with my thoughts. No emails, no Twitter or Instagram, no Slack messages from work. Just me, my reporter’s notebook and the ocean. It was wonderful. You never know how badly you need to get away until you finally do. 

Touring the ship with my son, we found the quarter-mile track on deck four. We often take walks together back home and I am a daily walker as well, but this was different. Our walk along the broadside of a cruise ship with the ocean as our backdrop was so much more peaceful. To disconnect for a while might be reason enough to take a cruise.

What to watch: Bring a good book. Be content with being offline while at sea. 

Things for the kids to do

While my wife and I went to brunch at Palo, an adult-only restaurant on the uppermost deck of the ship, the kids – Kayla,17, and Chase, 7, spent time at the Buena Vista Theatre, where Encanto, Marvel’s Eternals and Disney’s West Side Story were showing all day and night. 

There was also an arts and crafts table available for families to create keepsakes. Chase made a Mardi Gras mask for his grandmother and a couple of door signs for us to use back home.  

The Oceaneer Lab, an indoor playground with Disney movies playing on big screens around the room, is also available for kids ages 2-12. 

One night around 8:30 p.m. the kids went back to the movies by themselves. That’s something that couldn’t be done back home.  This trip allowed us to give her a little more responsibility. A victory for all parties involved if you ask me. 

What to watch: The only drawback is that adults (or more specifically, anyone over 12 years old) are not allowed inside to stay with the child.  Siblings over 12 have the opportunity to hang out in the Disney teen clubs, Edge and Vibe.  The child will be under the supervision of the Disney Oceaneer staff.

Service with a Smile

There are a number of restaurants on the ship and when you arrive at any of them -Triton, Cabanas, Tiana’s Place, Palo- you immediately get the feeling that service is at the top of the priority list. That might be the best memory I have of our four days at sea: the service.

The cruise offers a rotational dining program that allows guests to try all of the ship’s restaurants. “It really gives that experience, that I think is unique for Disney Cruise Line,” said Anthony Allen, Executive Sous Chef. “That’s the magic that stands out from the dining point of view.”

We had a number of servers that stood out but none more than Dussell, Livia, Mirka and Mihaly. All four will stand out in my mind long after this vacation is relegated to pictures on my phone and Throwback Thursday social media posts. Both Livia and Mihaly are from Hungary, while Dussell, who regaled Chase with cheesy magic tricks, is from India. The entire time we were dining on the trip they were attentive and sweet to my family.

Monday night, I mentioned to Mihaly after dinner at Tiana’s Place that I didn’t have any dietary restrictions, but I wanted to add more fruit to my diet. Tuesday after dinner at Triton he brought a fruit plate out for dessert. A total surprise. That he remembered me when he has so many people to attend to was a wonderful touch I won’t soon forget.

What to watch: There isn’t any cash accepted on the ship so be prepared to tip via the credit or debit card you have on file.

Cozumel, Mexico

The Disney Wonder pulled into the port of Cozumel early on a Wednesday morning and there was plenty of opportunity to see the city and feel the culture. A guided tour through the west side of the island (the downtown) and onto a rural two-way road through the countryside was interesting. The east side of the island was a better look at how people live and how they make a living. Tourism is the island community’s lifeblood, and the return of tourist groups like ours was a welcomed sight. Before the pandemic there were some 30-35 ships at port every month. During the height of tourism on the island there was a day in 2011 when 15 ships docked at port in one day. 

A side trip to a seaside shopping area was welcomed. Having been on board the Disney Wonder for an entire day, it was great to get my feet back on the ground and be able to walk around. 

A thing to remember for a trip to Cozumel is to bring cash to better be able to shop either at the many stores at the port (they all sell the same t-shirts and hats) or at Playa Mia Beach Park, a popular tourist destination on the island.

At Playa Mia Beach Park there will be opportunities to take a tour of the reef on a catamaran and snorkel with the help of some local instructors. My family had never spent time in Mexico, and this was a cool starter visit. The mainland is a 40–45-minute ferry ride away for those that had more time to spend sightseeing. 

“These are some of the unique adventures we provide for our guests,” said Sheldon Adrian, Port Adventure & Recreation Director.

What to watch: There wasn’t enough time at Playa Mia Beach Park. Be sure to make the most of your time if you’re there with a group from the cruise. Disney also offers unique experiences that include trips to Alaska and Tuscany, Italy.

Fireworks

The Disney Wonder leaves very few stones unturned when it comes to including every guest in daily activities. The night we left Cozumel was Pirate Night and there was a fireworks display off the starboard side of the ship. Having been on the ship for the past two and a half days it was great to get back on the upper deck and spend some time outdoors.

What to watch: It’s hard to find fault with colorful fireworks displays on a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean at night. So, I won’t. 

On our final day at sea, I happened upon a pair of Black women speed-walking along the wooden track that encircles the ship. As they made their way around deck four, a smile made its way across my face. Representation matters and watching them be among the walkers that morning felt good. Yes, we exercise. Yes, we take early morning walks. And yes, we take Disney cruises.

About the inclusivity of a Disney Cruise experience, Cade said, “Inclusion is one of our core values, it’s a cornerstone for the company.” 

Lee Hawkins, Disney Wonder’s assistant cruise director added an interesting point, “The most inclusive piece for me is our crew members and the individuality that our crew members provide to our guests.” 

 (For more information go to: Disneycruise.com)