my full report on Disney cruise #20, which we took on the Wonder on Easter weekend,
We embarked on Disney cruise #20 on the Thursday of Easter weekend and, as always, it was an exceptional experience. Spending the holidays on a Disney ship has become a tradition for us. We are always on the Wonder for Easter, Labor Day, and Thanksgiving, and this year we'll be there for 4th of July, too, not to mention a Memorial Day trip on the Magic for the new Western Caribbean itinerary. The only reason we're absent at Christmas is that my family insists that we attend one major holiday gathering per year. Because we've done so many trips, I don't do a blow-by-blow description in my trip reports anymore. Instead, here are some highlights of various parts of the cruise:
Getting To The Ship
Since 9/11, we try to fly in the night before whenever possible, as you never know when a security breach will shut down an airport or result in cancelled flights. This was our first post-9/11 trip from Midway Airport, which was recently "improved" (i.e. totally screwed up). I'm sorry to say that it's now just as bad as O'Hare, or perhaps even worse. We used to fly out of Midway frequently due to ATA's great fares, and we have several more flights already booked on ATA this year. But in the future, if American or United have low fares, I will choose O'Hare instead. At least they have independent off-site parking lots in the area (get a great rate at Avistar via www.airportparkinglots.com).
At Midway, unfortunately, there are NO independent off-site lots at all. All of the remote lots are operated by the airport, and they always seem to be full. When we arrived, not only were those lots full, but so was the overflow lot. Thus, we ended up parking in the overflow-overflow lot. It was overrun with people, all of whom seemed to be running late and stressing out. There were so many of us that we couldn't all fit into the shuttle bus, even when we were crammed in like cattle. Thank goodness we'd arrived a couple of hours early--we figured we'd be okay as long as the security line wasn't too bad.
The ATA check-in line was long, but there was virtually no wait at the E-ticket check-in. The only glitch was that we discovered there was a slight mix-up with our reservation. But it was straightened out quickly, and we also got an exit row. Then it was off to Security, where the wait was only about 10 minutes. The longest part was waiting to show our ID so we could proceed to the security checkpoint. I was questioned about my bag of crew gifts (mainly wine coolers and Bath & Body Works products), but they didn't search me so we were through quite promptly.
At the gate, we discovered that they were begging people to take the remaining exit rows due to the high number of kids. They were also severely overbooked and offering free roundtrip tickets to any volunteers for bumping. We would have volunteered, but none of the later flights had room, nor did any the next day, due to spring break. The boarding process was a free-for-all--they announced the pre-board, but didn't define it, so everyone got into line. Then there was a major game of musical chairs on board as the flight attendants tried to seat families together. Finally, there turned out to be one too many people on the plane. By the time they got that resolved, we were 20 minutes late, but thanks to a favorable tailwind we got to Orlando on time anyway.
The plane was one of ATA's huge, comfy, new 757-300's. Although it was packed with kids, they were remarkably well-behaved. All in all, after the hectic parking mess and the wild boarding process, it was nice to kick back and relax on a reasonably peaceful flight. If you fly ATA, ask for the juice blend when they are serving drinks. It's delicious! It looked so good when I got it that our seatmate ended up ordering it, too.
ATA now charges $2 for adults and $1 for kids for audio/video headsets. Hubby and I took a pass, as we always come well prepared with our own entertainment. We have books, CDs, and handheld Yahtzee, which helps the two-hour flight pass more quickly.
Soon we were at good old MCO. A hint: skip the restrooms near the gates, as they are small and almost always have a long line. The ones near baggage claim are much larger and emptier. ATA is notoriously slow with luggage, but this time they teased us. Our first two bags arrived almost immediately, and then it took another 20 minutes for the last one to show up.
We normally book a night-before hotel via Hotwire or Priceline, where MCO-area hotels typically go for $28 to $33 (including a free shuttle and often a free breakfast, too). But this time we were staying at the Fairfield, courtesy of our Mariott Rewards points. I called for the shuttle and they instructed us to wait at A18. Normally, hotel shuttles seem to take about 20 to 30 minutes. After an hour, I called them again, and they tried to tell me the shuttle had come to A16. Since that spot is only a few feet from A18, within plain view of hubby and I, I assured them that it had NOT. They said that it would come, and eventully it did...another half hour later. Hubby asked the driver what the delay had been, but he got no answer.
Thank goodness the hotel was nearby, as it was already past 9 p.m. and we hadn't even had dinner yet. As we got off, the shuttle driver hovered nearby as though expecting a tip. I don't usually stiff people, but I wasn't going to give out any cash after waiting so long and then being ignored when we asked for a reason. The hotel itself was okay, although not as nice as what we typically get through Hotwire and Priceline. At least it was free...I guess you get what you pay for.
There were lots of restaurants nearby, so we walked over to Bennigans for a late meal. Then it was on to bed, as we knew we had a big weekend ahead of us.
We had arranged for Happy Limo to take us to Cocoa Beach in the morning to meet friends for breakfast before heading to the port. Our pick-up time was 8 a.m., but we were ready a little early and our driver was already waiting. The luggage was packed in, and we hopped in the towncar & were quickly on our way.
Breakfast with Shirley
Many DISers (from the www.disboards.com cruise line discussion) are familiar with Shirley and Norm from the Perfect Gift, which makes gift baskets that can be ordered for passengers on the cruise ships. I've ordered baskets from them and have corresponded with Shirley via email, and now we were going to check out their shop and meet them for breakfast.
The shop was absolutely delightful, and Shirley and Norm are such wonderful people.We saw a number of baskets in progress. Besides their regular selections (which you can view at www.theperfectgift.cc), Shirley does beautiful custom work. I have gotten a custom Chicago Bears themed basket for hubby on our anniversary, and we've also ordered a beach-themed gift for a crew member, both of which turned out beautifully.
We had breakfast at a nearby tearoom down the street from the Radisson (sweet potato pancakes and cold chai...mmmmm!), and it was a pleasure to chat with Shirley and Norm. To our surprise, we discovered that Norm and my hubby share the same birthday and Shirley & I were born in the same month. I guess Cancers and Libras make great couples!
After breakfast, Shirley drove us over to the port. It was 11ish, and the terminal was not very crowded yet. We checked in at the Castaway Club desk and said hello to everyone in the port--we've gotten to know many of them over the course of so many cruises. Embarkation commenced at 12:15 (which seems to be the usual time), and in honor of our 20th cruise, hubby and I led the countdown.
There are still National Guardsmen at the port, and guests pass by a sniffer dog and through metal detectors while their luggage is x-rayed. Once you make it through security, you step out of reality and into the pixie dust on the ship.
Before heading to lunch at Parrot Cay, we paused to assemble and drop off Easter baskets for some of our crew friends. We made it to lunch in the nick of time, as there was no line when we arrived, but the number of people expanded rapidly as we ate and watched (once Parrot Cay fills, guests are directed up to Beach Blanket Buffet). Hubby ate an embarrassing amount of his favorite peel-and-eat shrimp, although I exercised more restraint.
After lunch, we headed to our stateroom. We were in my favorite, 5650, in the butt end of the ship. Before we started our busy schedule, I took some time to pause out on the verandah and relax for a few minutes, thankful that we had arrived safely and that our vacation had now begun.
We generally have some time to enjoy the adult whirlpools before the safety drill. The pool areas are usually pretty quiet, but this time there was a respectable number of people taking a quick dip. I think that people are getting smart and remembering to pack swimwear in their day bags. It's a great way to kick off the cruise.
All too soon it was time for the safety drill, which is actually quite short and efficient. Once that was out of the way, vacation had officially begun!
Deck 5 & the Staterooms
As I mentioned, we were in stateroom 5650, my favorite room on the ship. Overall, deck 5 is a great place to stay. Many people worry about being on the same deck as the kids clubs, but you won't even realize they are there, as the staterooms are foward and aft, while the kids clubs are in the middle. The only time I ever see the youngsters is when they are enroute to dinner or an activity. I always get a kick out of that, as I love to watch the counselors' skills at keeping everyone together. It reminds me of the "herding cats" Super Bowl commercial. Since deck 5 is in the middle, it's convenient to head up to the pools or down to the clubs, theater, and restaurants. The verandah rooms on deck 5 (and 6) are cheaper than those on deck 7. I know that many people like to be as high in the ship as possible, but personally I like being close to the water.
5650 is great because it's off the beaten path. You only have a neighbor on one side, so there is virtually no hallway traffic passing by your stateroom. It's right by the "secret" aft staircase, which is great for runs to the buffet or the 24 hour drink station. The verandah is a little larger than usual, and the gentle hum of the engines lulls me to sleep. We had a different stateroom host this time than last, but he was just as efficient, keeping me well stocked with shampoo and leaving cute towel animals decorated with hubby's glasses and my hair clips. We slipped some extra into his tip envelope.
This area of the ship isn't for everyone. Some people prefer the plexiglass verandahs, and others don't like the engine noise or prefer to be closer to the elevators. But hallway traffic keeps me awake, so I prefer the peace and quiet, and I enjoy the shape of the metal verandahs.
The forward section of deck 5 also has some good staterooms: the "secret porthole" rooms. If we're not in 5650, that's usually where hubby and I can be found. These are six staterooms (5020, 5022, 5024, 5520, 5522, 5524) that are sold as category 10 inside staterooms, but that have an obstructed view porthole. While I love verandahs, we have to be budgetary to affford o many cruises, so this is a way to get some sunlight for an inside price.
Since those staterooms are the first ones in the hallway, they get a fair amount of traffic passing by. Also, 5022/24 and 5522/24 are adjoiners, which tend to be more noisy (we book either 5020 or 5520). But the porthole is a worthy tradeoff, and they are very convenient to the elevators, theater, clubs, adult pool, and spa. We are in a secret porthole room for our three back-to-back cruises in Aug./Sept., so unless I give in to hubby's lobbying to at least move up to a navigators verandah, I should have a very interesting trip report on the secret porthole rooms after we return on Sept. 8th.
There isn't anything above deck 5 that has major noise potential, just the deck 6 staterooms. All in all, I recommend deck 5 as a great area of the ship.
One of the greatest pleasures of cruising is spending some time pampering yourself in the spa. It can be expensive, but heck, you're on vacation! Be sure to budget for some personal indulgence. My favorite treatments are the Absolute Face & Body (a massage and facial combo) and the seaweed wrap/massage. On this trip, I also tried a massage/reflexology combo because I love foot massages, and it was heavenly. Hubby stuck to plain massages, although he has promised to try the seaweed wrap at some point on our Aug./Sept. trips. This was one of the rare times that we didn't get a massage on Castaway Cay, as hubby had a full day of activities planned on the island. Instead, we booked appointments for Sat. evening (we also stayed on the ship on Nassau day and spent lots of time in the spa). As always, we did the surial bath, the BEST couples experience! If you've ever seen the Disney Cruise Line commercial about the little "souvenir," I can easily imagine how that could happen (wink, wink).
Decide on your preferred spa treatments and days/times in advance of you trip, and be there at least 15 minutes before they start to take appointments to ensure the best possible chance of getting them. Since Palo reservations are typically taken at the same time, I recommend sending one member of your party there while the other takes care of business at the spa.
The only hard part is having to do the math and figure out the gratuity while under the influence of post-massage endorphins. I always tip 20%, but since I am mathematically challenged even at the best of times, it can be a struggle to figure out. For one of my treatments, I realized that I had tipped a little short, but thankfully I had the same therapist the next day, so I was able to even it out.
Hubby renewed his supply of bath synergies, which he fell in love with when he used to do the hydrobath (that was in the days before he realized how great massages are). They're expensive, but I don't mind too much because when he uses them, the whole house smells like the spa.
"Hercules" was one of the few dissapointments on this trip. They have cut out Hades' monologue!! That was always our favorite part of the show. It was hilarious! This change must be recent, as it was still in the show in Feb. The scene that I think they should change is the marketplace, as it's hard to tell what's going on (Herc chases a frisbee and wrecks the marketplace) unless you have seen the movie. Even then it's hard, as the "destruction" takes place off-stage, as indicated by sound effects. Now that the monologue is gone, we'll be more likely to skip "Herc" in favor of pre-dinner hot tubbing.
"Disney Dreams" was fantastic, as always. There are some really good singers in the current cast, which makes it even more enjoyable. It was as good the 21st time as it was the 1st. We are particularly happy that the 3:15 matinee is still being offered. We can see it early, in a non-crowded theater, and still have our evening free.
Due to the onboard premiere of "The Rookie," there was only one session of "Who Wants to be a Mouseketeer," at 3 p.m. We didn't get to go, as we had spa appontments till 3:15. Typically, the only reason we go to "Mouseketeer" anyway is to try to get on the panel and get one of those oh-so-tradeable pins. We've noticed that a lot of people with kids leave early because a trivia show doesn't hold the little ones' interest. One of our dinner tablemates said that they amused themselves by giving away the answers via clapping (we've noticed that seems to happen a lot). I'd rather see "Mouseketeer" as a daytime show, with something like a variety show or other type of stage show at night.
Sadly, we missed "The Rookie" because the late seating showing was at 5 p.m., and we had spa appointments. There was another showing at 11:15 p.m., but we skipped it because we wanted to get up early for Castaway Cay the next morning. But we did get to see "Snow Dogs," which was hilarious. I wanted to see "Return to Neverland" and "Monsters Inc.," but we rarely can fit movies into our busy schedule.
The Dining Experience
As always, we were on the Tritons/Animators/Parrot Cay rotation. We skipped Tritons for Palo, which was as excellent as always. I am in a rut for my appetizer (portabello mushroom) and dessert (chocolate souffle), and hubby always orders the steak and gorgonzola cheese special, which is not on the menu but which seems to be offered regularly. The food was delicious and the service was excellent. I don't think we've ever had a bad experience at Palo. It is truly the equivalent of our favorite WDW restaurants (think Citrico's, Yachtsman's Steakhouse, the Living Seas, etc.).
I am also in a rut at Animators, never straying from the duck and goat cheese flat bread, the maple salmon, and the strawberry shortcake. I also requested a side of asparagus, which was offered with another entree. Hubby had the vegetarian entree, which he really loves even though he is generally a meat-and-potatoes person. Our tablemates were a family with an adult child and a mom, her brother, and her young daughter. We rarely have kids at our table, except on holidays when the kid population is particularly high. Disney does a great job of seating adults with adults whenever possible--out of 20 cruises, I think this was only the third or fourth time we had a child at the table. But we really don't mind, as the families have been great, and this cruise was no exception. It was really fun to watch the young girl's eyes light up as she described how much she loved "Disney Dreams."
This was our first trip to Parrot Cay in quite some time, as that is typically our Palo night. It is still my least favorite of all the restaurants. The gumbo soup and roasted pineapple dessert were excellent, but I wasn't as thrilled with the ribeye steak (he mashed yucca that was served as a side dish was great!). I probably should have ordered the prime rib special, which I've heard is very good. We had received a bottle of champagne as a gift in our stateroom and brought it to share with the table. Hubby was annoyed, as when we asked our tablemates if they would like some, the assistant server said, "No, no, they drink wine." Maybe so, but they should make that decision themselves (actually, most of them did have some champagne). I know that the assistant servers like to make tips from the drinks, but our tablemates had ordered plenty of wine and specialty coffees on the previous nights. Hubby had wine at Animators, and we also ordered a bottle as a gift for a crew member for which we had to pay a gratuity, even though it wasn't served. This was one of the rare occasions when we didn't add extra money to the tip (we didn't deduct anything--it would take a VERY bad experience for us to do that, as we know how the crew members count on the tips).
The American-style buffet lunch on Nassau day was great, as always, but I was sad to see that there was no blueberry cobbler. The bread pudding was good, but I missed that delicious blueberry treat! Everything else was delicious.
There is so much to do on the ship that it's really hard to choose. We never miss the 70s party, although I miss my pre-knee injury days, when I could really get down and boogie. Now I have to wear my knee brace and take it easy--yuck! But it's always a rollicking good time, and this time it was even more hilarious than usual, as the "Village People" were shirtless! We'd love to do the 50s/60s party too, but it's on the last night so we're always too exhausted.
Once again, we did the "Draw Mickey" class. This was our third time, and our drawing have improved a bit, but they still don't really resemble that famous mouse too much! If we keep trying, maybe someday we'll draw Mickeys respectable enough to post on my website.
We attended the Castaway Club party, too. Lately they have been a little crowded, but at this one there were less people than usual. I love the little chocolate wrapped baklava-type things they serve...mmmmm! We always try to get there a little early so we can get a seat by the window. The party is in the Cadillac Lounge unless the crowd is too big to fit...then it is in Wavebands. Cadillac Lounge has great oversized portholes, and the party is held shortly after leaving Castaway Cay, so it's a great view.
We got another photo with Captain Tom and chatted with Rachel, Bill, and various other "officials." I recommend this party because it's a great photo opportunity, and you can also see how seriously Disney Cruise Line takes guest comments.
Our lucky streak remains unbroken...once again, the weather on Castaway Cay was gorgeous! We wanted to get an early start, as hubby was planning on a banana boat ride, snorkeling, parasailing, and biking (he also wanted to kayak, but he ran out of time). We were in line before disembarkation began at 8:30, as he wanted to be one of the first in the snorkeling area (the sand gets kicked up as the day progresses, impairing visibility).
I was torn between heading to the adult beach and staying at the family beach. I made my choice when I discovered a perfect spot near the snorkeling area: two beach chairs under a shady palm with a nearby hammock. It pays to be up early! I went swimming for a while...at first the water was nearly deserted, but within an hour it was teeming with bodies. After a while, I retreated to the hammock to read and bask in the sun.
Hubby was off doing his activities. He brought a waterproof camera along on the banana boat, but when he let go with one hand to take a photo of the ship, boom! They hit a wave and he went flying! He lost his sunglasses and a contact lens (thankfully, he packs spares), and of course everyone had to laugh at him, but he still thought it was fun. He did parasailing, too (he tried it on our last trip and fell in love with it). Ironically, everyone in his group was from Northern Illinois, like we are.
When he was done with the snorkeling gear, I borrowed it and ventured out. I saw a man who brought Cheese Whiz to attract the fish, and they totally attacked!! It was hilarious! They wouldn't stop following him around. The only thing I didn't like was the morons taking seashells, live sand dollars, etc. out of the water. Did they ever think that maybe they should leave them so the rest of us can enjoy them, too? (Not to mention the fact that they are killing live sea creatures.) But overall, I was sorry when it was time to get out for lunch.
Even though the ship was full, the beach didn't seem obnoxiously crowded, the lines at Cookies were minor, and we had no trouble finding a spot to sit with our lunch. Overall, it was another awesome day on Castaway Cay. I don't think I can ever get tired of that tropical paradise. We never disembark at Nassau anymore...we just pretend it's a day at sea. But Castaway Cay is the ultimate! It's a big reason why we sail on Disney.
Although we didn't spend any time on the adult beach on this trip, hubby biked over there and noticed new, very prominent "Adults Only" signs at the entrance and the lunch area. We were pleased about this, as the adult areas are one of the biggest draws for us on Disney Cruise Line. Unlike Royal Caribbean, they enforce this policy. Since the bike path runs right by the entrance to Serenity Bay, and there is a convenient bike rack right there, I've noticed that many families stop and check it out. A crew member is usually quick to intervene, but hopefully the signs will make the violations less frequent. Many people are amazed that a childless couple would keep sailing on Disney, but I always try to explain that they are very committed to making it just as enjoyable for the "big kids." I would recommend them for an great adult experience over Royal Caribbean any day.
The Fun Comes to an End
Of course, all good things must come to an end, and on a Disney Cruise that time comes all too quickly. The only good thing was that you no longer need to fill out a customs form unless you have exceeded your allowance. Disney has such a painless disembarkation process. We had an earlier flight than usual, so we skipped breakfast and left the ship early. On Royal Caribbean, we would be sitting around forever, waiting for our luggage tag color to be called. They should take lessons from Disney--obviously, there is no reason for the process to be such a hassle. If Disney can simplify it, why can't they? Happy Limo was waiting for us, and it was off to the airport. We got an exit row again, and the security lines weren't too bad yet. I would have liked to shop, but I remembered how security had a 90 minute wait when we arrived later after our last cruise. We could already see the busloads of people being dropped off and waiting in the check-in lines (Southwest's extended all the way past the ATA counter) so we skipped the stores.
The posted wait was 10 minutes, but we had the misfortune of being directed to the first line (they now have queues that lead you to a person who directs you into a particular line). You NEVER want to be in the first or last line, as those are the ones for wheelchairs, which are brought to the front of the line and searched meticulously. We watched as people who had come much later than us traipsed through the other lines while we remained stationary and watched yet another wheelchair pass us by. Instead of having them go to the first and last lines, they should simply dedicate one of those lines to wheelchairs only...it would be a lot more efficient. We were lucky enough to have plenty of time before our flight, but I pity anyone in our line who was running late. Hubby and I amused ourselves by picking out people in brightly colored clothing who were at the end of the other lines and then betting on whether they would make it through security before we did (six of them did before we finally got through). For the first time ever in Orlando, they searched my pin bag. Actually, they didn't literally search it. They opened it, put it through the x-ray again, and then passed it around to four different people before returning it. That's unusual...at MCO, they usually know what the pin bags are and let them pass through without question.
Our flight was as full as last time, but they started boarding early, so we actually left on time and got to Chicago ahead of schedule. And of course, it had to snow the next day, when we returned to work, just to remind us that we were truly home. Thank goodness our next Disney cruise is only three and a half weeks away!
As always, there were so many crew members who went out of their way to make our cruise a memorable experience. I don't know how Disney does it, but they really have the best group afloat. As always, Tanya and the port crew were super, as were Karen and Sasha. We consider them more as friends than crew members. The same goes for P.J. and Rita. I was really sorry we weren't on their dining rotation, but we still got to see them at various times throughout the cruise. Captain Tom, his assistant Stephanie, Paula from Merchandise and Bill all deserve kudos too. I know I'm probably forgetting somebody...there are so many people who make the cruising experience special. It's so neat to be greeted like old friends and to be made to feel so at home. We're already looking forward to #21.