Disney Cruise #23: Back to "Home Sweet Home"
Some Background Information
I'll kick off the trip report on our 23rd Disney Cruise with a little background information. Hubby and I are a childless couple who enjoy cruising in general and Disney cruising in particular. Since September of 1998, we have done 23 Disney cruises and four on Royal Caribbean (guess which one we prefer). We live in Chicago, but we try to cruise whenever we can. We maximize our vacation days by doing a lot of holiday sailings, and we usually do the three-day cruise, so we manage to squeeze in quite a few trips.
Since we sail on the Wonder so frequently, we've gotten to know a lot of the crew, and we know the ship almost as well as our own condo. We've come to consider it our floating "home away from home." But our last cruise, on May 25th, was aboard the Disney Magic because we wanted to try out the new Western Caribbean itinerary. The Western was great, but we couldn't help being a wee bit homesick. This trip report chronicles our return to our favorite Disney ship. It was rough to have to disembark in three days after doing the seven day cruise so recently, but we couldn't be too sad, as we are boarding the Wonder again on August 29th for three cruises in a row!
Flying Out Early
We used to fly to Orlando the morning of our cruise, and we had uncanny luck, especially considering that we live in Chicago and cruise a lot in the winter. But since 9/11, we have been flying out the night before, and this trip reminded us why that's a good idea.
We flew out of Midway, which was surprisingly uncrowded for a holiday week. The economy lots were (surprisingly) open, but we popped the $22 per day for the parking garage. Since it was only for a weekend, we figured it was worth the convenience of not having to take a shuttle bus.
We used the E-ticket check-in at ATA and managed to get an exit row. Then it was off to the terminal. I have learned to put my pin case through the x-ray separately rather than inside of a luggage bag--otherwise, it usually gets searched. The security line was a bit longer than usual, but not more than 10 minutes. Since we were already checked in, we set up shop in the food court. We like to wait there because the gate area is typically very crowded and tight. I had a stir fry, but Tony had already had lunch. One thing I like about the new Midway is the nice variety of food--everything from Chinese to an Irish pub to Greek and Mexican, with Ben and Jerry's for dessert.
The food court was VERY crowded, so we were lucky to get a table. We ended up chatting with the woman at the table next to us until it was time to head for the plane. Meanwhile, some poor wandering soul asked to share our table--I guess we looked non-threatening. Our gate was close by, and we arrived about ten minutes prior to boarding. It was a stretch 757-300, so they started a little early.
We were in the exit row that doesn't have extra legroom in two out of the three seats, but the window seat has no seat in front of it. Long-legged Tony took that one, and I took the aisle since I have extremely short legs. Happily, there was no one booked between us so we had room to spread out during the flight.
Everything appeared to be going smoothly--but then time passed and still no departure. Finally the pilot got on the intercom and explained that they couldn't get the cargo door closed. Sounded simple, but the time ticked by rapidly, and his next update said that the back-up system wasn't working either--the next step was to try something manually. I was beginning to think that we might not be able to take that plane, but after 45 minutes we were able to go. Of course, whenever we hit turbulence, people were joking that it had probably popped open again.
This little incident reminded us that mechanical failures can happen. This wasn't a bad one, but we were lucky. On the way home we were reminded of a much more serious reason for a delay. The person in the seat next to us was returning from Sovereign of the Seas. He had flown out the day of the cruise, and halfway there, a person had a heart attack on the plane. Passengers administered first aid while they made an emergency landing in Atlanta, where they remained for two hours. Fortunately, he was taking a towncar, and the driver was still waiting for him. They zoomed off at top speed and made it in time to catch the ship, but he said he was terrified the whole way that they'd be pulled over for speeding.
At any rate, although we got in late, there was no need to worry about rushing. We had booked a room at LaQuinta via Priceline, so once we had gathered our luggage we called the shuttle and were on our way within half an hour. This was the first time at that hotel--previously we've stayed at the Amerisuites via Hotwire ($33), the Renaissance via Priceline ($28), and the Fairfield via Marriot Rewards points. All were fine except the Fairfield, which took 90 minutes to send a shuttle. The LaQuinta was not the top of the line--the rooms opened to the outdoors and smelled very musty, and there were no restaurants within walking distance (we didn't count the bar and grill next door, as it appeared to be 95 percent bar and 5 percent grill). But we weren't unduly stressed, as we were only staying there one night. We ordered from a pizza place that had left flyers in the doors, and their pasta turned out to be quite good.
Port Canaveral Ho!
The next morning, Happy Limo was there to whisk us off to the port. It's nice to be rested and get an early start, rather than waking up at 4 a.m. and heading for the airport. We got to the port by 10:45 a.m., and although there were people milling around, the boarding queues were empty. Since only a few check-in windows are open that early, there was a bit of a line. But it was short and moved quickly. Quite different from checking in for the Magic, when the line can get quite long. The Wonder is shorted because all the land/sea people check in at their resorts, and most of the rest are coming on airport buses. If you use a towncar or rent a car, you can easily arrive before them. With the Magic, EVERYONE must check in. Thus, you can get away with arriving later for the Wonder and still get a good place in the embarkation line. With the Magic, come early!
The wait time went by very fast, as we chatted with various members of the port crew who we've come to know in the course of so many trips. They are such a helpful and friendly bunch--they make us feel so welcome. Hubby bought a latte at the coffee bar to sip while waiting. We also ran into several families from the DIS cruise line message boards (www.disboards.com), and a family from Northbrook, which is not too far from us. We all had such a good time talking that it was time to board before we knew it.
Back Home Again
As we passed through Security and entered the lovely atrium, we felt like we were home again. Embarkation is a big production--your photo is taken, and your family name is announced by a crew member as a line of cruise staffers claps in welcome. Then you are directed to Parrot Cay or Beach Blanket Buffet for lunch.
Of course, hubby and I don't need any direction, and the hoopla is old hat for us. But it's still such a special feeling to walk onto the ship, like stepping out of reality and into Fantasyland for the weekend. Our friend Sasha is on vacation, so we didn't get his usual exuberant greeting upon boarding, but when we reached Parrot Cay, we were warmly welcomed by several members of the waitstaff. Both Iiana and Lito, who have served us on past cruises, always remember us and greet us enthusiastically. Head server P.J. was also there--I had thought that he was on vacation, but there he was hugged us and welcoming us back once again. Cruise Director Rick was there, too, so we had a blast hanging out with him. He introduced us to Brent, his assistant, and the environmental officer--I can't remember his name, but he was an absolute riot! We also spent some time with Ken, the Hotel Director, and Stephanie, the Assistant Hotel Director, who we met on our last cruise. They are all such a great bunch. The Magic was fun, but we don't really know anyone there anymore because we only do the 7-day once a year. On the Wonder, I don't even think of it as a "regular" cruise anymore. It's like a weekend trip to visit friends.
Destruction in Stateroom 5650
We were staying in my favorite stateroom, 5650, which is as far aft as possible on Deck 5. I love it because there is virtually no hallway traffic (you get some engine noise, which lulls me to sleep), and your verandah is larger than usual (although it has a solid metal rail rather than the clear plexiglass). It's my favorite stateroom on the ship.
We'd been in the same stateroom on the Magic (although the difference was apparent to me because the art over the bed is different), and on that trip the door handle came off! Of course, that was promptly and easily remedied. On this trip, on the first night, I woke up a couple of times and noticed that I seemed to have slipped to the middle and that I could feel the "split" between the two parts of the bed. It wasn't annoying enough to wake me up all the way, so I didn't think anything of it.
The next morning, I was out on the verandah and hubby was doing a mile walk on the deck. When he returned, he popped his head out and asked, "Did you know half of the bed is missing?"
I came in, and sure enough, the bottom of one half of the bed was gone! No, I swear we weren't doing anything wild to break it! Actually, I can prove it, as our stateroom host told us she had reported a problem at the end of the last cruise. Obviously it wasn't a major problem because I hardly noticed it (of course, on a Disney cruise, and especially in 5650, I'd be happy sleeping on a mat on the floor). But between the door handle on the Magic and the bed on the Wonder, we're probably going to be banned from that stateroom! We headed off to the spa, and the bed was as good as new when we returned.
Even though it can be hard to find time for relaxation on the three-day cruise, I managed to make time to sit out on the verandah. Eating breakfast out there is such a pleasure, as is relaxing for a few minutes before bedtime. We love to watch the stars and see the lights of the other cruise ships in the distance. Another reason I like 5650 is that you only have a neighbor on one side. I only saw our neighbors out on their verandah once--I guess they were keeping as busy as we were.
Our stateroom hostess, Emy, kept us well supplied with shampoo (I like extra, as I obsessively wash my hair multiple times every day on the ship) and ice, and there was a towel animal waiting for us every night.
The one thing I don't like about 5650 is that your lifeboat station for the safety drill is in Animators Palate. I prefer being outside or in the Walt Disney Theater, as the restaurant is so crowded, with the tables and all the people. One good thing is that we can take the back staircase back to our room inside of taking 10 minutes fighting our way through the crowd--but Oops! Not this time! A crew member stopped us and redirected us to a different door, saying we had to learn another way to our station. We tried to explain that this was our 23rd Disney cruise, and we probably knew more ways there than he did, but it was to no avail. We had to join the other salmon on the main stairwell. Oh well, the peace and quiet of that stateroom is worth one inconvenience.
I'm going to organize this trip report by topics rather than time sequence, since a blow-by-blow description seems pointless after 23 times. So the next topic is the stage shows: Hercules, Who Wants to Be a Mouseketeer?, and Disney Dreams.
We didn't see all of Hercules--we're not as fond of it since they shortened it, and we particularly miss the monologue Hades used to do towards the end. We had spa appointments, so we popped in on Herc when we were done, which was a bit late. We were happy to see that Hades at least does a couple of jokes now (there were none last time), but I still miss his full-blown spiel about the "Yellow People on Deck 5" and all the other corny by funny jokes. Oh well, we got a real kick out of Pain and Panic's antics--that alone made it worth coming. If you are new to Disney cruises, I recommend that you see the movie Hercules before seeing this play--that way, it will make a lot more sense. It's basically a Cliff Notes version of the story, with a lot of corny humor.
I didn't go to Who Wants to Be a Mouseketeer, which is a Disneyfied version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Of course, I've never been fond of the t.v. gameshow, as I think it is drawn out much too long. The shipboard version is not quite that bad, and the Disney trivia is interesting, but I'm still not fond of it. A lot of people tend to leave before it's over, as the kids tend to get restless.
I do go to this show sometimes, as does hubby, to see if we can get picked for the panel (a panel of volunteers acts as the "Phone A Friend" option). Besides having a vast knowledge of Disney trivia, we have a more selfish motive--the Panelist pins make great traders. I have never managed to be chosen, but hubby has the knack--he's been on the panel several times.
Even though I skipped the show this time, hubby went--and yes, he was chosen again. Unfortunately, this time being on the panel was an emotionally scarring experience. He described it for or me SEVERAL times. Seems that the panel spokesman (the person who gets to wield the microphone and give the panel's answer) would only listen to the woman next to him, even when everyone else disagreed. This caused a contestant to lose--most of the panel knew the correct answer and tried to give it, but the spokesman insisted on giving an incorrect one from his "girlfriend." This traumatized hubby so much that I think he may need therapy. He feels really bad because the contestant was doing really well up to that point, and then lost due to that answer. He said she was really good with Disney movie trivia (the panel question had to do with the Magic Kingdom), and he thinks she would have gone a lot farther. Oh well, the bright side is that he got another Panelist pin.
We saw Disney Dreams for the 24th time and are finally tired of it--just kidding! It is a no-miss show, and I can't imagine missing it. This cast is really good--we were getting a real kick out of watching Peter Pan's antics during the songs. As a special treat, they've brought back the "fireworks" at the end, which have been missing for a while. I highly recommend this show, especially if you love Disney movies and enjoy the shows at the park. We like to sit in the front show, but although kids seem to like it up there, be warned that the little ones might be able to see how some of the special effects are done.
In the early days of Disney Cruise Line, Disney Dreams used to be presented on the first night. It wasn't too long before they moved it to the end, which I think is much better. The last day is always sad, but Disney Dreams is a superb send-off. They are still doing a matinee performance, which is very convenient if you want to free up your evening for packing or relaxing. It's at 3:15, so you need to leave Castaway Cay a little early, but the matinee is very relaxed and uncrowded. If you can't bear to leave the island, you can always go to the evening showing.
On the Magic, the cruise staff was diligent in swooping down to stop people who were videotaping or taking flash pictures (for some reason, this was only during Disney Dreams, not the other production shows). On the Wonder, I did see one person asked to stop videotaping, but that was it. Overall, there didn't seem to be as many people taking flash photos as usual, probably because the matinee has a much smaller crowd.
Of course, there were plenty of other things to do. As always, we went to the 70's party, which is even more hilarious than usual now that the Village People appear topless (really!). I would never miss shaking my groove thing, even though I have to wear my knee brace now to keep my patella from wandering. The cruise staff (or "groove staff") really keeps the energy level high. They do a great job of getting everyone up on the dance floor.
The only thing I don't like about attending events in Wavebands is that much of the non-smoking section is right in front of smoking, and the overall ventilation is bad. I am allergic to smoke, and an hour is about all that I can tolerate before my sinuses really start to rebel. Surprisingly, the smoke didn't seem to be quite as bad on this trip. I don't know if they've improved the ventilation or if there were just less smokers in attendance.
Lilo and Stitch was played at various times throughout the cruise. Even though I wasn't all that interested in it, we went to see it and I was pleasantly surprised. It is hilarious!! It's hard to make the time to see a movie on board, but it's great to have the opportunity to see brand-new films if you get a chance.
We made it to the deck party on Nassau night, too. This is an event with lots of dancing, plus entertainment by the main stage performers and the Disney characters. It is a rollicking good time! In addition, as a special event for the 4th of July, the characters did a special American-themed dance on stage before each performance of Hercules. It was really cute.
There is also a 50's/60's party, but we haven't attended it because it is on the last night, and we are usually busy packing. We will definitely check it out when we do our three Wonder cruises in a row in August/September, as we won't have to worry about that early disembarkation. We'll also have to check out the Krazy Karaoke, which we've never seen yet, and Dueling Pianos, which we've only seen once. There is so much to do in the evening, but lately hubby and I have been lazy--there is one place where we've been spending a lot of time, which brings me to the next topic...
In my view, a cruise is one of the most relaxing vacation options, and the spa is the icing on the cake. Over the course of 23 cruises, I think we've done just about every treatment that the Vista Spa offers, and much of the spa staff knows us quite well.
I have now narrowed it down to two favorites, the seaweed wrap/massage and the Absolute Face & Body (a facial/massage combo), and I try to slot in a massage/reflexology too. My husband used to stick with the hydrotherapy bath, but now he is hooked on massages and does one every day while we're on the ship. Talk about spoiled! He is also a big fan of the Tropical Rainforest (see photos and a description of this and other treatments on my website at www.castawayclub.com), but he didn't have time to hang out there on this trip.
Of course, we did the surial bath too. I think that is one of the most fun "couples experiences" on the ship. Where else can you strip down and fingerpaint each other with mud?! The button to start the steam has been rather stubborn lately, so you have to keep pressing it and jiggling it if it doesn't work the first time. If you are persistent, it will pay off and the steam will crank on.
If you want spa appointments, be sure to board the ship as early as possible. You'll be given a Navigator (activities list) at the port, so check out the time that appointments will begin to be taken (usually 1:30, but it can vary). To ensure that you have the best choice of times, be in line ten to fifteen minutes early. The most popular treatments, like the surial bath and the massages, tend to go early.
We both use some of the spa products at home. They tend to be expensive, but we splurged on this trip and bought a couple of new types of bath soak, plus I got some eye serum. Since I do the Absolute Face & Body so often, I am familiar with most of the facial products, and I like the serum and the fruit active mask. The refreshing gel is excellent for achy muscle--…we always keep a stock of that at home.
Eat, Drink, and Be Merry
With all our Disney cruises, hubby and I don't even need a menu anymore. We have started trying some new things, and as a result we have some new favorite dishes. A couple of trips ago, hubby decided to try the vegetarian entree in each of the restaurants. Even though he is a meat and potatoes person who couldn't live without steak, he enjoyed them so much that he orders them regularly now (I do too). Other than that, I love the sea bass in Tritons and the salmon in Animators Palate ( I don't really have a favorite in Parrot Cay).
We had the same head server (Rajeev) on this trip as our last Wonder cruise, and he went out of his way to ensure that everything was perfect. Even when we met him while lunching at Beach Blanket Buffet, he came over to make sure that we didn't need anything. Rita (a head server we know from many previous cruises) was also on our dining rotation, so even though she wasn't assigned to our table, she kept an eye out for us too. Between her and Rajeev, our dining experience was superb. Our servers, Mickael and Rajkumar, took good care of us. I felt sorry for them because on the last night, I somehow managed to spill my glass of red wine so they had to clean up after me. Oh well, I guess there used to spills because of all the kids on board, but as an adult I should be setting a good example!
Since the first night was 4th of July, there was a special American style menu at Triton's in addition to the regular offerings. I had it, and it was quite good--items like fried chicken, ribs, corn bread, and coleslaw. Hubby had the vegetable stack, which has become his favorite. We had the cherries jubilee for dessert--mmm! We skipped Animators Palate for Palo, and in Parrot Cay we both had the vegetarian entree, with gumbo for me as an appetizer. We were planning on the bananas flambe for dessert, but we ended up with chocolate mousse cake due to hubby's loose lips. This was his birthday cruise, and he had given me strict orders not to tell anyone in the dining room. I respected his wishes, but he didn't trust me. On the last night, when I was chatting with Rita, he said, "I know you told them it's my birthday, and you're plotting something!" I hadn't, but he had cooked his own goose--at the end of the meal, he was presented with a cake and birthday pin and serenaded by the servers. Maybe next time he'll trust me.
We were at a large table this time, which we enjoyed, as we love chatting with other guests. We had a really neat group: a mother and teenaged son, a father and adult son, and two guys (one was from Brazil and was a Disney cast member, and the other was his friend from Denmark). We only got a chance to chat with them two nights, since we did Palo, but I wish we had such a large group on the 7-day (on that one, we were at a table for only four).
Speaking of Palo, it was as superior as always. Dalibor from Croatia was our server. We know him from previous cruises, and he is great! Hubby and I have settled into a rut. He had the filet with gorgonzola cheese, and I had the pumpkin ravioli (but with alfredo sauce, not shrimp sauce). We were pleased to be back on the Wonder, as the Magic replaces the pesto break sauce with garlic mayonnaise and I LOVE the pesto. I really missed it on our 7-day. On the Magic, the chef also seemed to use more anise as seasoning, and the presentation of the food is different. Since we were on the Magic so recently, it's interesting to compare the little differences between the two sister ships. We had the portobello mushroom appetizer (always a favorite), but hubby had tiramisu for dessert, NOT the famous chocolate souffle! Oh well, you can be sure that I DID have souffle...mmmm! This was the first time we've dined in Palo on Nassau night (we usually go on Castaway Cay night, as we generally skip Parrot Cay. It was very pleasant to dine with the view of the city lights.
We lunched on Nassau day at the American buffet, which was delicious as always (although I still miss the blueberry cobbler they used to have). I loved the turkey and mashed potatoes, as well as the cornbread and conch fritters. As I mentioned earlier, our head server was there and he went out of his way to make sure everything was perfect for us. We also met Suzie of the dining team. We see her on almost every trip, and she always greets us warmly. I swear she must never go on vacation! I don't usually eat breakfast, but I love the Eggs Benedict at Triton's so I did make time for those too. A couple of trips ago, I also fell in love with the chicken fingers. We are always on the late seating dining, so they make a great snack in between meals (as if I would starve to death on a cruise ship).
The midnight buffet, which is actually served during the Nassau deck party, is now more elaborate. It is a fresh fruit and pastry buffet, and although I was too full to indulge, it looked fabulous.
Ports of Call
I can't say much about Nassau since, as usual, we stayed on the ship. We were debating hiring a cab for an island tour, or maybe running over to the public beach, but laziness won out and we remained on board to lounge in the adult pool. We had disembarked there on our last Wonder cruise, and we noticed that the solicitations were must more intense and aggressive than they used to be. I'm not sure of the reason, but it really turned me off. I know that's how port towns are, but it didn't used to be quite so bad. I heard many other people comment that they felt the same way. Many said that they returned to the ship right away due to the constant harassment. You'd think the vendors would realize that they are driving away customers. It's okay to be assertive, but they go way beyond that.
Interestingly, we found the opposite to be true in Cozumel. I've heard that it's bad there, but I found it to be much more low key than Nassau. A couple of people asked me if I wanted braids, and when we looked at merchandise the vendors were right there to bargain, but I would expect that since I am looking at their goods. It might have something to do with the fact that Disney docks at a nice new dock, complete with a mall-like shopping area. The other ships dock at the old facility, where the atmosphere might be different.
Of course, we were anxious to visit Castaway Cay for the 23rd time, and I vowed that our streak of excellent weather would remain unbroken. We disembarked early and headed for the adult beach, where we set up shop on a hammock and chairs under an umbrella. Shortly thereafter, the black clouds rolled in and we were huddling under the umbrella to escape the rainstorm. Finally hubby decided to run to one of the chairs in a canopy over it, which were in the area behind us, and put our beach stuff there so it wouldn't get wet. I kept telling him, "This is going to blow over. We are the good luck charm, and it WILL NOT rain all day," but he didn't believe me.
Just as he started to move our stuff, a couple came wandering down the beach. They thought we were leaving the hammock and were hoping to take it over. I explained that we were just moving temporarily to shelter, and lo and behold, the sun came out! My faith was rewarded! I offered to share the hammock, since we obviously wouldn't be using it the whole time, so they set up shop on some adjacent chairs and we all enjoyed the glorious weather. They were very interesting to chat with...the wife is a travel agent, and like us, they do not have any children but they were having an excellent trip.
We relaxed on the beach and did some snorkeling (hubby saw the barracuda that hangs out near the plane wreckage twice), and then had some lunch and headed off to the family beach for some more snorkeling. The day was over all too soon, so we headed back to the ship to see Disney Dreams. The true test of our luck will be when we do the three back-to-back cruises--if it holds out, that means our streak will be 26 days of excellent weather at Castaway Cay.
As usual, the Castaway Club party was on Saturday, but it was moved to Barrel of Laughs. There was quite a respectable number of people, but nothing like the Magic where we had 800 plus. I was too full for appetizers, but I took advantage of the opportunity to have a drink. We spent some very pleasant time chatting with Captain John, Cruise Director Rick, Ken the Hotel Director, and many more. I had to leave early due to a spa appointment, but hubby stuck around for a while. I always recommend the party as a great photo opportunity.
The Party's Over
Saturday always marks the end of the cruise, which comes much too quickly. At least Disney makes the disembarkation process on Sunday morning as smooth as possible. Basically, you just leave whenever you want. You can have a sit-down breakfast, grab a quick bite at the buffet, or skip eating altogether like we did--we prefer to sleep in a bit. We got off around 8:15 and there was no line. We didn't have much luggage, so we just carried it to the terminal ourselves (normally, you leave it outside your stateroom door the night before and it is delivered down there for you). Just show your drivers license, make your way downstairs, drop your customs form in the box, and that's it.
Even though the towncars can drop you off right at the terminal building now, they must pick you up in the parking lot across the street. It's not too far of a walk, and our driver was waiting there for us, so it was off to Orlando International. We thought it would be really crowded due to the holiday, but it wasn't too bad. Actually, the American and Southwest lines were out of control, but thankfully ATA had virtually no line at all. Since we were early, we managed to score an exit row. This time, there were no flight delays, so all too soon we were back in Chicago. Sigh! Oh well, at least it's not too long before we'll be on the Wonder for eleven days straight. Watch for a new trip report when we return from that one!