Like all of our trips, this one began with the journey to Midway Airport. Not only was it the busiest weekend of the year, but Chicago was also experiencing its first significant snowfall of the year. As we drove down Cicero Avenue, we were assaulted by heavy, wet snowflakes. The roads were not salted, so traffic was crawling at a snail’s pace. Fortunately, we knew the weather forecast ahead of time, so we left plenty of extra time to cushion any delays.
The traffic didn’t get bad until we had almost reached the airport. Fortunately, we were able to veer off Cicero before we reached the terminal, as we park in a lot across the street from the Orange Line train station. I have an aversion to shuttle buses, and the Orange Line lot is close enough to simply walk to the airport. I was worried that it might be full, but fortunately there was plenty of room. You have to be careful where you park because some of the spots are tight, and other people will make spots where none exist, even if it blocks you in. After barely being able to get out once, we have learned to select our spots carefully, Fortunately, there was room in our favorite row.
As we hiked across the street, huddled against the bitter wind and globs of snow pelting our faces, we were very glad to be heading to the warmth of Florida. I knew that the chance of our flight being delayed was almost 100 percent, but we always fly out the night before our cruise to allow a little extra “safety time.” As long as we could get out eventually, we’d be fine.
There was literally no line at Security. It was much more crowded over Veteran’s Day weekend. One of the guards told us that it had been pretty bad earlier in the day, but now it was virtually deserted. We saw that he wasn’t kidding when we got to the terminals; apparently the crowds had made it into the airport, but they had been unable to get back out again on their flights. People were crammed into every available chair or sitting on the floor against every possible vertical surface. The bad weather was spread all the way from Chicago to Atlanta, so it was wreaking havoc with the flights.
We somehow managed to luck into finding wall space that had the added bonus of an electrical outlet! Those are a rare commodity, even at the best of times. With the crowd of holiday travelers, I wasn’t even planning to look for one; good thing my husband spotted it. I settled in and plugged in my laptop to do some work until we could determine the status of our flight.
We chatted with some of our fellow travelers; many had been waiting for hours. One poor man and his wife were trying to get to Atlanta to make a connection. By the time we finally left, two hours late, they were still waiting. I hope they finally made it; it’s sad to see people stuck when they’re trying to get somewhere for the holiday. We were among the lucky ones; the plane we were scheduled to go out on had landed but was being held on the tarmac because there was another plane in its gate. Once that plane could finally get out, ours would disgorge its passengers and we’d be able to board shortly thereafter. As I mentioned, our delay was about two hours; personally, I considered us very lucky.
Once we were on the plane, I called Happy Limo, as we had a towncar scheduled to pick us up. I know that they monitor the flights, but I tend to be paranoid so I called anyway to let them know about the delay. They assured me that they were watching the flights and that they would be waiting for us.
Next, I decided to pop some Xanax. Despite the fact that I fly to Orlando at least twice a month, I am petrified of flying. Being a very logical person, I can reassure myself with statistics, and that gets me on the plane. But it doesn’t help when the inevitable problems crop up, like diversions, major turbulence, or even aborted landings. Each time I experience something like that, I become a little more paranoid. You’d never know it to look at me, but I’m a bundle or nerves whenever I’m aloft, just a step or two away from running through the aisles in a panic.
I’m fine on uneventful flights, but this one promised to be rockin’ and rollin’ due to the weather. I have a supply of Xanax, but in the past, when I’ve taken one pink tablet, I haven’t felt any effect. I called my niece, who is a pharmacy assistant, to see if two tablets would be safe or if I’d drop into an irreversible coma. She assured me that doctors routinely prescribe the equivalent of FOUR for flying anxiety, so I popped two and settled into to see if there was any effect.
My husband and I were watching “Ed Wood” on our portable DVD player, and halfway through the movie I could no longer keep my eyes open. I caught myself drifting back and forth from semi-consciousness to sleep and back again. I was aware that we hit turbulence strong enough for the captain to have the flight attendants take their seats, but in my haze I didn’t much care. When we landed, I probably looked and sounded like a drunk, shuffling along and slurring my words. Oh well, it’s better than freaking out! I guess I’ve found the perfect dosage to relieve flight anxiety.
Thankfully, I know Orlando International Airport well enough to be on auto-pilot once I step into the terminal. Soon enough we were climbing into the black Excursion that Happy Limo had sent to pick us up. I vaguely remember the ride down 417 and crawling into bed. I must have been out before my head hit the pillow, because the next thing that I remember is waking up at 7 a.m., raring to get on the road to Port Canaveral.
Actually we had some time, as our pickup was scheduled for 9:30 a.m. It’s about an hour’s journey from the Disney World area to Port Canaveral, so that would have us arriving at around 10:30. My husband and I like to be among the first people to arrive. Time seems to slip into fast forward on the morning of every cruise, so that prolongs the excitement a bit. Happy Limo will do a grocery stop on the way, but we didn’t need anything so we headed straight to the port.
This was quite different than our last cruise, which embarked in Fort Lauderdale due to the hurricanes. That entailed a four-hour drive; one hour was a breeze by comparison, and it was so nice to see the familiar terminal building. Disney had just installed a new drop-off area so people in shuttles and towncars no longer have to cross the street. It was really convenient; a nice little improvement.
We headed up the escalators and into the check-in area. There are tables where Cast Members will help you make sure you have all of your documents, but we bypassed those since we’ve become experts at the paperwork end of things. The queue lines had been rearranged so that Castaway Club members, concierge guests, and other guests, all enter in the same area, but feed into different lines. Since there weren’t many people there yet, we were able to go right up to the counter.
It was so nice to see all our friends at the port. We saw many of them in Fort Lauderdale, as Disney had bused them over, but that had been such a hectic experience. It was nice to be able to say hello, and even chat a bit, in the calmer environs of Port Canaveral. We noticed that the coffee shop was still closed, but it should be reopening soon with coffee and also a small assortment of merchandise, including those little necessities that you might have forgotten to pack. I think that’s going to be a good addition.
The port was decked out for the holidays, although we noticed that some decorations were missing and others were changed. I wonder if the storage area had a run-in with the hurricane and if there were some casualties. It still looked very festive and put me in the mood for the holiday season. I especially like the Mickey hands holding giant dangling ornaments.
Soon enough it was time to board. Lately, the boarding time has been quite early; sometimes it’s even a little before noon. We trooped through the big yellow Mickey head, paused for our embarkation photo (I was looking forward to it, since I was wearing my Stitch hat, but I managed to spoil it by closing my eyes), and headed on board for the 40th time.
The first order of business was to have a hearty lunch at Parrot Cay. The embarkation buffet is also served up on Deck 9, at Beach Blanket Buffet, if you like to dine al fresco. But Parrot Cay is the most convenient for us because it’s aft on deck 3, just two decks below our usual stateroom, 5650.
I loaded up on salads, while my husband indulged in an obscene portion of shrimp. I usually love the cold soup (which is usually strawberry), but this time it was melon. Ugh! Melons are one of the few things that I absolutely cannot stand. My husband has no such prejudice, so he had a nice, big bowl.
The buffet has something for everyone. Besides the salads, there are plenty of hot dishes, carved meat (the type varies) and also cold cut sandwiches. There is even a table of kid-friendly items like chicken strips. If you can’t find something to eat, in the immortal words of Goldmember, “Then there is no pleasing you.”
After lunch, we headed up two flights and down to the end of the hall, my home away from home. I was a bit thrown off by the new carpet in front of the elevators. It had different colors and a thicker texture than the carpeting before the Wonder’s recent dry dock. This was our first cruise since our ship had gotten its makeover, so I was anxious to see the changes and check out the new areas (like the sports bar and the adult coffee café).
5650 was just as I remembered it. It was perhaps a bit brighter due to a new paint job, but the decor was the same. My favorite picture was still on the wall, and the bedspread still had the same pattern. I breathed a sigh of relief; “home” at last! We did notice one nice new change since the dry dock. Disney Cruise Line now features nice, big towels instead of the “postage stamps” they previously had. It’s so nice to towel off with a large, plush towel like you’d find in one of the Disney World resort hotels.
We dropped off our carry-on bags and headed off to collect a new set of kid navigators for my website. We noticed some changes to the Club and Lab since dry dock, so my husband documented them with his trusty digital camera.
Then we headed over to Diversions, the sports bar/pub, to check it out and take some photos before the crowds descended. I could barely recognize that it had once been Barrel of Laughs. I remember it best when it was a comedy club in the old days, although most people knew it as the dueling pianos bars. Now, the backstage area had been ripped out, making it much more roomy, and the décor resembled a comfy living room with plasma televisions mounted at strategic points throughout, showing various sports events on ESPN, ESPN2, and ABC. The exposed portholes brightened it up, and the furniture looked plush and inviting. There were even game sets for those who might want to play checks or backgammon. We decided to check it out more thoroughly during the beer tasting later in our cruise.
Next, it was off to the teen area, which was similar to Diversions, i.e. a homey and comfortable space. Quite different than the mirrored discotheque look of the Stack on the Magic. There were lots of little alcoves where teens could relax and chat, and plenty of plasma screens for movie viewing. I think it’s going to be hit with the teen cruisers.
Our last exploration stop was the Cove Cafe, located in what used to be the teen club (the new teen area is in the old ESPN Skybox). I went inside to get a menu while my husband snapped photos of the outside seating area. All of a sudden, I heard a crash of breaking glass. He had managed to back into one of the tables and knock off the glassware! When he came inside, I pretended that I didn’t know him, just in case he got hauled to the brig (that would certainly be a new experience for cruise #40!).
When you first board, it’s also the prime time to get your Palo and spa reservations. The exact time and location is listed in the Navigator, although Palo ressies are usually taken in Wavebands and of course you go to the Vista Spa to book massages, facials, hair appointments, and the like. In Wavebands, we saw several old friends. Because we enjoy eating, which tends to be one of the primary activities on a cruise, we’ve gotten to know lots of people among the dining staff. We usually go to Palo on Nassau night, but this time around we decided to do it on Thursday. My husband had a craving for tuna, even though I pointed out to him that fish is not exactly a traditional Thanksgiving meal.
After work, it was time for play. We headed back to our stateroom, donned our swimwear, and headed off to the adult pool for our traditional hot tub dip (the way we begin almost every cruise). When we had passed by earlier, the area had been almost deserted. Now, other people had ventured out to take a dip. When we first got it, it was more like a “lukewarm tub,” but the heat kicked in and we felt like lobsters by the time we left.
There was a very high population of families on board due to the holiday, so more kids than usual tried to slip into the adult pool. They were shagged off by crew members pretty quickly…anywhere from immediately to within five minutes. I always watch for that, as I strongly recommend Disney Cruise Line to childless adults. One of the points I always make is that Disney has adults-only areas, and (unlike Royal Caribbean) they are actually enforced. I always want to make sure that is still the case because it’s once of those things that gives Disney’s ships appeal for everyone. You won’t like it if you absolutely can’t stand kids because you will see them in public areas like the dining rooms and theaters. But the big difference is that when you want some kid-free time, you have places like the adult pool, the spa, Palo, or the Cove Cafe where you can escape. I get a kick out of watching the kids on board; their excitement is contagious, and I love to see their expression of awe when they see Mickey or watch one of the shows. But I value my quiet time, too, and Disney’s ships offer the best of both worlds.
Hopefully the enforcement continued through the rest of the cruise. I’m not sure, as we didn’t make it back to the hot tubs, but on Castaway Cay afternoon I noticed two kids running between the two adult hot tubs and dive bombing in. I was on my way back to our stateroom from the spa, so I don’t know if anyone did anything about it. I was amazed that none of the adults would say anything. When I’ve been in a hot tub and kids have tried to invade, I’ve pointed out that they’re in an adult area and that they need to leave. For some reason, people seem reluctant to speak up, even when a kid in diving into their lap and splashing water in their face. Fortunately, assertiveness is one of my strong traits; it comes in handy at other times, too, like the time a few cruises back when I went to sit down in the front row of the theater and a young man told me that I couldn’t because he was saving the whole row. As I plunked down into one of the front row seats, I told him that seat saving wasn’t allowed. Most of the people I meet onboard are very nice, but there are always a few with the everything-resolves-around-me mentality. I’m afraid that doesn’t work with me.
We left the hot tub about half an hour before the safety drill so my husband (the luggage person in our family) could start unpacking. He has a very specific method, and I find it best to just stay out of his way. After so many Disney cruises, he has designated drawers for socks, underwear, and the like and designated spots in the closet for our dress clothes, t-shirts, and jeans, just like at home. I retire to the verandah with a book and let him do this thing. I never remember what goes where, so I spend the rest of the cruise asking him, “Where are my nylons?,” “Where are my shorts?” etc. Oh well, at least the poor guy tries.
When we are in 5650, our lifeboat station is Q, in Animators Palate. We donned our orange Sponge Bob life vests and headed one flight down via the back staircase and across the room to the designated spot. The lifeboat drill is quick and relatively painless, although I’ve seen an occasional tantrum or two. It only lasts about 15 minutes, and then you can head back to your stateroom and officially begin your trip.
I had a spa appointment booked for 5:45, but my husband had opted to skip any spa treatments until Nassau day. Originally I planned to join him a bit late for Hercules, which starts at 6:30, but I decided to skip the show since I could see it on the stateroom television, Both Hercules and Disney Dreams play every hour on the appropriate evening in case you miss them in the theater, I hope that The Golden Mickeys will make it to the t.v.s soon, too.
Prior to lunch, we planned to see “The Incredibles” at the Buena Vista Theater. I used to be of the opinion that it’s a waste of time to see movies on the ship. I can do that any time on land, and there are so many other things to do at sea. But Disney premieres their new movies on their ships at the same time that they are released on land, so sometimes it’s just too tempting. This was one of those times; I’d heard great things about the latest Disney/Pixar outing, so I was anxious to finally see it. I was very pleased to see it scheduled on Nassau morning, since we rarely bother to disembark the ship. I knew that the theater wouldn’t be too crowded, since most of the people were on the island.
Sure enough, the crowd was very light. I was pleased because even though the theater is opulent, the chairs are spaced as close as the seats on an airplane. I have short legs, and my knees still tend to get whacked. It’s quite a contrast to the stadium seating and plush chairs that are becoming the standard in land based theaters, but space is at a much greater premium on a ship. We settled into the back row, where there are folding chairs for people traveling with those in wheelchairs. Since nobody needed them at this showing, we made ourselves at home in roomy comfort.
I don’t want to turn this trip report into a review of the movies, but I do have to say that “The Incredibles” really lived up to its name. It is now my second favorite Disney movie, topped only by “Lilo and Stitch.” Like “Lilo,” it is darker than typical Disney/Pixar far, and it definitely earns its PG rating.
My husband and I did the wine tasting at Palo quite a while back, but the beer tasting was new to us. It’s a new event that started with the debut of Diversions in the space that used to be Barrel of Laughs. Neither my husband and I are heavy drinkers, but we do enjoy an occasional drink. It’s funny, but my husband was practically a teetotaler before we started cruising. Then we went to the wine tasting, and he was intrigued by the idea that a glass of wine could complement the taste of a good meal. He started ordering wine when we were sailing and eventually expanded that to include trying new wines at land-based restaurants. Now, he’s become quite the connoisseur, although he tends to order sweet dessert wines with his dinner instead of after the meal.
We’re not really big beer drinkers (he likes his wine, while I go for the fru fru cream drinks), but we always enjoy tasting different types of brews. In the past, we’ve done the beer tasting at the brewery restaurant on Boardwalk at Disney World, and I was intrigued by one of the beers that had a distinctive taste of bananas. I was wondering if Diversions might offer something to rival that. We were also looking forward to spending some time in a new space aboard the Wonder. Way, way back, when Barrel of Laughs featured improv comedy, we spent many late nights there. But dueling pianos never really grabbed us, so we weren’t sorry to see them make way for the new pub and sports bar. I knew that my husband would enjoy having a nice place to watch basketball and football; he never frequented the ESPN Skybox because it was quite smoky, and cigar smoking was allowed inside…yuck!
Diversions allows smoking, too, but only by the bar. Of course, as luck would have it, when we arrived, we discovered that literally the only empty table in the whole place was situated right next to it. Sigh! The beer tasting doesn’t require reservations like the wine tasting, so space was at a premium. You don’t have to be participating in order to be in the club while it’s going on, so it was packed with people who were just hanging out, having a drink, and watching television or just socializing.
Soon the placemats were passed out, with a space for each of the four brews that we would be sampling. The portions were very generous; my husband and I could easily have split them, but since we didn’t know what to expect, we had each opted for our own set of beers. The cost is $10, and I felt like we definitely got our money’s worth. The beers are passed out one by one, and as you sample them, the brew master talks about them and about beer in general, covering its history and the brewing process. He also described some intriguing brews from around the world that definitely rivaled the banana beer at the Boardwalk. He told us about beers that tste like cherry and even chocolate!
I thoroughly enjoyed the event, except for our proximity to the smokers at the bar. The enclosed areas of the ship have about as much ventilation as an airplane, so by the end of the event, my nose resembled an incessantly dripping faucet. Wavebands is non-smoking until 9 p.m., and I think it would be great if all of the clubs had the same policy, or at least if they were non-smoking during events. The smoke level is probably the only thing that might keep me from spending more time in Diversions.
When the beer tasting was over, we headed down Route 66 and past Wavebands, where Bingo was just about ready to begin. I’m not much of a gambler by nature, but my husband loves the lottery and can occasionally be tempted by other games of chance. He was in one of his gambling moods, so he enticed me in.
A three-pack of cards costs $25, so I bought one for each of us; rather pricey for half an hour of entertainment. But it’s fun and can also be very exciting, especially when there’s only one number standing between you and the jackpot. Each session of Bingo also generally has some raffle prizes. At this one, two Castaway Cay activity packages were raffled off, and the announcer said that the next session would feature passes to the Rainforest for the lucky raffle winners, who are selected randomly by stateroom number.
Up until that point, I’d never had any luck at Bingo so I wasn’t overly enthusiastic. But on this day, the Bingo Gods were smiling down on me, and I won not just one, but TWO games! Granted, there were several other winners in each, so when the cost of the Bingo cards was deducted, I only came out $10 ahead. But still, it was loads of fun to see that magic number appear and holler “Bingo!” at the top of my lungs. There is one large jackpot, but usually nobody wins it until the last Bingo session. It’s a snowball that must be won in a coverall game within the first 47 numbers. But on the last night, the restriction is lifted, and the first person to fill their card wins the whole thing.
Our last dinner was in Triton’s, which is close enough to Til We Meet Again to allow us to slip out for photos, then slip back in for dessert, if our meal is running long. But on this night, we had plenty of time for leisurely dining prior to slipping out for photos. The décor in Triton’s is my favorite. I enjoy the color-changing pictures in Animators Palate, but I have seen them so many times. In Triton, the changes are very subtle; many people don’t even notice them. As you dine, the lighting moves through various blue and green hues to give you the illusion of being “under the sea.” It’s the most elegant of the three dining rooms, too. My husband and I rarely dress up at home, so we enjoy brining dress clothes on the ship and getting a little fancy for Palo and Triton’s.
Once upon a time, jackets were strongly recommended in Triton’s, but over time Disney’s dress code has loosened up considerably. I suspect it’s because people associate the Disney name with casual family vacations. It’s a rare soul who dresses up at Disney World, so people carry that attitude over onto the ship. On this trip, people were dressier than usual, probably due to the holiday. We noticed a lot of family groups having photos taken in their fanciest clothes. I love to see the little girls dressed up in their princess outfits. But we had our share of overly casual people, too. Disney does ask that people do not wear shorts in the dining rooms at dinner time, but I noticed a father and son both wearing their shorts, either totally unaware of the request (which is printed in the daily Navigators) or just totally ignoring it.
Oh well, I don’t let what other people are wearing spoil my experience. I figure that it’s their vacation, and they paid their good money, so they’re free to wear whatever they like. I just think that it lends a little more class to the whole experience to get dressed up, but that’s because I spend as much time as possible in jeans at home.
Our server promised that if I ordered the crème brulee, he would serve it in a new and interesting way. He guaranteed that it would be delicious, so I left myself at his mercy. He brought it out with ice cream on top, and it was indeed quite tasty. We still had time to watch the international “show” (the servers parade around the restaurant with various flags to the tune of “It’s a Small World”) before heading out to the atrium to see which characters would make an appearance at Til We Meet Again.
The final character greeting is a really neat experience. It’s a lot less formal than the typical character appearances, and in addition to the usual characters, several people from the main stage cast make an appearance. You’ll see much of the cast of Hercules, and Anne Marie and Peter Pan of “Disney Dreams” are usually on hand, too. You can also usually find some characters from “The Golden Mickeys.” I’ve seen Mulan in the past, as well as the due that performs the “Lion King” number. There are various princesses, and of course Mickey and Minnie are usually there, too.
The one character that I alwsys have to stalk is Stitch, since he is my favorite. I had gotten my formal shot with him and Lilo earlier in the cruise, but I’m always game for one more. We found him up on Deck 4; even though most of the characters disperse around deck 3, a few always head up the stairs. Often, there is little or no line for the characters upstairs, so I recommend heading up to check the crowd density.
I managed to get another photo with him, and then we headed back to our stateroom. We didn’t have to worry about leaving our luggage out by 11 p.m. because we just keep it with us. If you want it brought down to the terminal for pickup the next morning at disembarkation, you have to leave it outside of your stateroom by the deadline. We don’t bother because we travel pretty light, and we don’t like to feel rushed. It’s hard to get your bags out by 11 if you have late dining and want to get some character photos or if you want to go to the 70s party.
We have been skipping the 70s party lately because it’s hard to stay out late and then wake up early for disembarkation. But I strongly recommend it; I wish it was on another night. There is lots of dancing to disco music, including “Car Wash” and a line dance (I bail as soon as coordination is required). But the best part is the guest appearances by Gloria Gaynor, John Travolta, and the Village People. It’s a different show every time, depending on the participants, and usually it’s hilarious.
But on this trip, we opted to get to bed early. We had a late flight on Sunday, so we planned to pick up a rental car and spend some time in the Kissimmee area before flying back to Chicago. We figured it would be nice to get an early start. On the last morning, you can have a table service breakfast; your time is assigned based on your dinner seating, and you sit at the same table as the previous night, with your usual servers. If you would rather have a quick meal, you can run up to the buffet at Topsiders. But we are usually so full from the previous days that we skip breakfast altogether. We just shower, do our last minute packing, and head off the ship.
People who have never sailed on another cruise line don’t realize that it’s a luxury to be able to get off the ship at your leisure. Most cruise lines force the passengers to get off in groups. On Royal Caribbean, you disembark based on the color of your luggage tag, and I know from personal experience that it can literally take hours. I’ve never understood why RCCL and the others can’t adopt Disney’s system. Just leave when you want to…what could be more simple than that? Thee is rarely a line to leave the ship, and the Customs lines are usually not too bad. The only time we ever encountered a long wait was when new post-9/11 security regulations were announced literally while we were out at sea. Since it was the first go ‘round with the new regulations, things were totally disorganized and I thought we would never make it off the ship and through the terminal. But that is only one cruise out of 40. Overall, Disney is a real star when it comes to their disembarkation process.
We headed over to the new pick-up area to catch the Budget rental car shuttle. I just love the convenience of not having to cross the street. Even though this was the first time for the new system, it seemed to be running smoothly. There were queues set up for each of the three major rental companies (Budget, Hertz, and Avis). Usually Avis has the longest line, but this time it was Hertz. Happily, there was no line at all for Budget, and the van was waiting at the curb. My husband and I piled in, and soon we were at the office, picking up our ride to Orlando. The shuttle driver was very helpful, offering us maps and information about area attractions like the space center.
I had booked an economy car, but they upgraded us to a larger model. That was fine with me; the more car around me, the better! The only bad thing about picking up cars at the Budget in Port Canaveral is that they don’t have a gas pump on the premises. That means that you almost never get a car with a full tank of gas. You must be sure that it’s noted on your paperwork, because otherwise you will be penalized if you don’t return it to the airport with a full tank (and the penalty is something like $5 a gallon). I noticed that our contact listed the tank as 7/8s full, but it was definitely below that. Unfortunately, a shuttleload of people had arrived, so there was now a line). Then I had the bright idea of taking a photo of the gas gauge and odometer with our digital camera. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words!
When we got to the airport, there was no problem with the gasoline, and I think the attendant thought I was nuts when I told him that I had a photo, just in case. But I’ve read enough horror stories on the internet to know that it’s better to be prepared and not need the evidence than to have a problem with nothing more than your word to back your story.
As always, I was sad that another cruise was over, but this time around it wasn’t too bad because we are also sailing for Christmas. This will be our very first Christmas at sea; my husband has wanted to do it for year, so I am looking forward to it.