High-tech fun aboard Disney Dream cruise
Reporting from aboard the Disney Dream

With all things Disney, you come to expect family fun, fairy-tale fantasy and plenty of pixie dust.

But it's the technology behind Disney's trademark "magic" that seems to set its new Dream apart from other cruise ships. High-speed computers, LCD screens, motion sensors, fiber-optic lights and miles of snaking cables — much of it hidden, some in plain sight — are slavishly employed in support of Disney's core mission: storytelling.

Throughout the ship, technology helps tell the story — from the dinner show where an animated turtle chats with passengers to the interactive playroom where kids fly over a virtual London with Peter Pan to the virtual portholes that provide interior staterooms with ocean views.

As the theme park blogger for The Times, I approach Disney from, not surprisingly, a theme park perspective. I've been a Disneyland pass holder for more than a decade and have visited the Florida parks several times with my family — wife, Nancy, and 10-year-old daughter, Hannah. But we'd never been on a cruise, Disney or otherwise.

We found the ship's décor luxurious and the entertainment mostly top notch. The food and service were hit or miss, and at times, the pampering didn't live up to the top-dollar price tag. And the incessant sound of screaming kids made the Dream sometimes seem more like a Chuck E. Cheese than a glamorous cruise liner.

But the technology behind all of it? Nothing to fault there.

We glimpsed the 1,115-foot-long ship for the first time from the Magical Express bus, which whisked us in a little less than 75 minutes from our Walt Disney World hotel in Orlando to the Port Canaveral, Fla., terminal. From there, the Dream departs on three-, four- and five-night journeys to the Bahamas with stops in Nassau and at Disney's private island, Castaway Cay.

The newest cruise ship in Disney's fleet was dressed in classic Mickey Mouse colors: royal blue hull and red funnels with yellow lifeboats. A 14-foot-long Sorcerer Mickey cast a spell on the ship's stern.

After a 30-minute "Sailing Away" embarkation show featuring singers, dancers and a dozen Disney characters on the upper deck that was equal parts entertainment and salesmanship, we descended to our stateroom — one of the most coveted on the ship. It wasn't one of the royal suites (1,800 square feet) or one of the concierge suites (600 square feet) or any of the 1,000-plus ocean-view staterooms (240 to 300 square feet), but one of the veranda-less 170-square-foot inside staterooms. The draw: a virtual porthole that combines a real-time live video feed of the ocean with a rotating cast of three dozen animated Disney characters that splash up on the cleverly camouflaged LCD screen.

They're so sought after, Disney says, that passengers have refused complimentary upgrades because they prefer the rooms with the 24-inch-wide high-tech portholes, a cruise industry first. Of the 1,250 staterooms on the Dream, 150 feature the popular portholes.

As a first-time cruiser, I knew the staterooms would be small, but the reality of three people trying to unpack in such a tiny space made me claustrophobic.

The Art Deco-style room with a maritime-inspired motif included a queen-size bed with 300 thread-count sheets (to Nancy's delight), a convertible sofa bed but no pull-down bunk as promised (to Hannah's dismay), a desk big enough for a laptop, a 22-inch flat-screen TV, an iPod dock, a mini-fridge and enough closet space for the three of us to snugly stow our stuff.

As if on cue, Russell the cherub scout from the "Up" movie floated past our porthole clutching dozens of colorful balloons as we sailed out of port under skies that threatened rain.

When we booked our three-night cruise, we selected the early dinner with a late show option (versus the flip-flop scenario). Disney employs a rotational dinner and theater system with the Dream's 4,000 passengers cycling through three restaurants (with the same dinner companions and wait staff) and three shows.

On the first night, we drew the Animator's Palate, a 700-seat restaurant designed to look like an artist's workshop with paint brush-shaped pillars and pencil sketches lining the walls.

After everyone sat down, the lights dimmed, the music swelled and bubbles filled the picture frames, transforming the restaurant in the round into a floor show starring the "Finding Nemo" characters.

Crush the sea turtle "swam" around the restaurant across 100 cleverly camouflaged LCD screens — the common denominator behind many of the technological innovations aboard the Dream. With the help of microphones concealed in the centerpiece on every table and a team of technicians hidden backstage, Crush interacted with passengers by name during the real-time exchange.

At our table, Crush singled out Austin Gilmer, our 8-year-old dinner companion from Tennessee.