I love the planning (sorry Dreams Unlimited Travel. I promise. Next time…). I love seeing my family get excited. I love being introduced when we walk on the ship (the first time is the most thrilling, especially if you didn’t know ahead of time). I love the pools and the shows. I love the music and the ship’s horn. I love Castaway Cay. I love the H2O bath products (while supplies last). I love the port days, even if we don’t get off the ship. I love the food. I adore the cast members. I love interacting with Crush at Animator’s Palate (one time I laughed so hard I cried) on the Dream. I love the metal cabin doors. I love the space under the bed to store luggage.
My entire journey is an expression of love for all things Disney Cruise Line.
But there’s this one thing I dread, and frankly may keep me from another trip unless my wife and I are traveling with at least two other people. That is sharing a dinner table with strangers.
Dining is intimate. It’s why, when on a date with that special someone, it almost always involves dinner. We make eye contact and have normal conversations. It’s one of the only times we open our mouths to put food or drink in while in full view of others. There’s vulnerability. It’s sometimes messy. We make noises. We get food on our faces. We get spinach in our teeth. We slurp. We clink silverware. It’s not pretty. We are sometimes mannerless. This is something only loved ones can tolerate.
I like the idea of rotational dining. Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s great to have the same serving crew each night. They’re probably the cast members we speak with the most and get to know the closest. But it’s the anxiety over who they plan to seat us with that overwhelms the experience.
There are two requirements related to dining I now have when planning a DCL cruise. One, a deal breaker, is that we have main (early) seating. We are early diners. I grew up with dinner on the table at 5:00 when my father came home from work, so it’s ingrained in me. I can’t imagine eating at 8:45 pm.
The other requirement is private table dining.
Table matchups are risky. Yes, the crew does what they can to pair up people with matching life experiences, where the Head Server plays a sort of platonic matchmaker by basically pairing similar ages and/or number of travelers in your party. But when you sit with them every night of your cruise, and there is no connection made, you might dread every evening meal. Our last five-night cruise would have been awkward and uncomfortable were we to be paired with a couple with which we had nothing in common. I can’t imagine an even longer cruise.
I don’t mind meeting new people, and most of the time I enjoy it, but when you casually meet someone you always have an out, which is to politely excuse yourself and leave. But you can’t very well excuse yourself from dinner and leave.
On our last pre-COVID cruise, my wife and I went on an Alaska sailing. I had asked for a private table, but of course, they couldn’t guarantee it. So on our first night, as we approached our table, I noticed three place settings on the square table. Ugh. I asked our escort if there would be another guest joining us (solo travelers are somewhat rare but do happen), but the cast member spoke limited English and I didn’t get an answer. Once we took our seats and the third place setting was removed, it dawned on me. It wasn’t that there were going to be three of us at the table. They just didn’t know if we were face-to-face diners or adjacent diners. Once we took our places across from each other, our server removed the third place setting. I commend the Head Server for thinking of this. Brilliant! That level of thought and consideration is off the charts.
On my very first Disney cruise, I took my two equally favorite daughters. They were pre-hitched, so there were just the three of us (Mom sat this one out but joined us on the next one). We were paired with a couple who had a young daughter. It was nice enough, but awkward when the conversation lulled as we ran out of things to talk about. And it’s a little weird when you turn to your party for your own conversation.
So what should Disney do? I think they should take a page from the New York City cafe playbook, where they set out a row of small tables, each about 5 inches from the next, and an alternating larger space for people to sidle in to take a seat. One side would have a long bench, while the other side would be single chairs. That would work for pairs of diners. It would continue to ensure the efficiency of the serving staff, but still give people the psychological satisfaction that they have a little privacy and aren’t obligated to interact with other diners. Of course, some restaurants may not be set up to accommodate this.
If more, smaller tables aren’t an option, they could establish a noticeable gap between parties on the same table to give guests a sense of privacy. I’ve heard some ships may already employ this.
They could do the same with three-party diners, although they would have to give up some real estate for that fourth seat.
As our family has grown, each subsequent cruise we went on had enough in the party where I was pretty certain we’d have our own table, which we did. But the Alaska cruise reminded me all over again of the risk of being seated with an incompatible couple. I’d much prefer to break bread surrounded by people with whom I have more in common besides age and number in our party.
If you’re the type of person who loves meeting people and looks forward to who will be your tablemates, I already know that I really like you. I would want to be your tablemate. I need people like you in my life, if only for the pleasure of your company.
And it might get me to reconsider my position against dining with strangers.