Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Trip Report #39: The Wrath of Hurricane Frances

My husband and I have sailed every year during hurricane season since 1998 with no problem, so I guess it was inevitable that our luck would run out. We like the bargain basement rates that you can get if you are willing to gamble on the weather. We had also never missed Castaway Cay in 38 trips; as a matter of fact, we were on the last Wonder cruise where guests were able to disembark on the island before Hurricane Floyd wreaked its havoc. With all of the cruising we do, I knew that eventually our lucky streak would end.

Cruise #39, on September 9, marked the end of that streak. It was the very first time that we ever personally experienced the disruptions that hurricane season can cause, including a change of embarkation port and missing Castaway Cay. While it was not the most pleasant of vacations, it was interesting to personally experience the challenges. I enjoy being able to report on new and unique things in my trip reports, and now I can speak from firsthand experience about the risks of sailing during hurricane season.

Actually, we avoided the worst of the problems. A few weeks back, Hurricane Charley roared through Florida, followed closely by his slow moving sister, Frances. Between the two of them, they wreaked a lot of havoc in the Sunshine State. It is rare for hurricanes to hit the inland areas, like Orlando/Kissimmee, with much force, but Charley beat the heck out of that area. Frances followed a couple weeks later, beating up on the Disney area (although not as hard as her “brother”) after causing extensive damage in the Cocoa Beach/Port Canaveral area.

Due to the weather, both the Magic and Wonder had to abruptly lengthen their cruises. The 8/28 sailing of the Magic went from seven to ten days, and the 9/2 Wonder three day cruise was extended into five. On the surface, being stuck on a cruise ship might sound like a fun and exciting prospect. In reality, people have jobs that they must go home to, children waiting with babysitters, and other responsibilities that don’t stop just because of a storm. With the weather so unpredictable, no one could tell them definitively when they would be able to leave and where they would disembark. Satellite communication was disrupted, making it difficult to stay in touch with people back home. All in all, it was a worst-case hurricane season scenario.
The Magic made a stop in Galveston, Texas, for fuel and supplies, and eventually both ships were able to dock at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, Florida (about four hours from Orlando). I can only imagine the mass confusion as people tried to change their flights to leave from the new location or to get back to Orlando International. The Magic’s next cruise was abbreviated to four days, and the 9/5 sailing of the Wonder was cancelled.

I half-suspected that our 9/9 sailing would be cancelled. I already knew that Castaway Cay was out of the picture, since the hurricane parked almost directly over it for a few hours. That wouldn’t be reason enough to scrap the cruise, as itineraries are not guaranteed and can easily be changed if needed. But with Port Canaveral still closed, I couldn’t believe that we would be expected to make a four hour trek to the ship. That would chew up a good part of embarkation day, not to mention the logistics of checking in passengers at a different port.
Surprise, surprise! It turns out that Disney did, indeed, decide to send the 9/9 cruise out of Port Everglades. Normally I would be happy, but the idea of that long journey to a different port was less than appealing.

My husband and I had been scheduled to fly to Florida the Friday before our cruise. We planned to stay in Celebration for the week, meeting up with some friends from New Jersey and enjoying the off season at the parks. Then we would link up with some friends from Celebration with whom we were sailing on the Wonder. In view of the chaos, we were seriously considering canceling the cruise and simply extending our stay in the Orlando area. The weather was nice, other than the typically midday Florida showers, and the parks were virtually empty. At both Universal Studio and Islands of Adventure, we never waited more than five minutes for any attraction, including the normally-crowded Spiderman and the brand-new Mummy roller coaster. After all, we already have Thanksgiving and Christmas cruises booked, plus half a dozen more in 2005, so why mess with the turmoil?

Even though Disney was providing bus transportation from Orlando and Port Canaveral to Fort Lauderdale, most of the buses were scheduled to leave quite late (as it turned out, the last ones didn’t arrive at the ship until 7:30 p.m.). A multi-hour bus ride is not the way I like to start my vacation, especially when it’s sure to be packed with bored kids who are also anxious for the trip to start and not happy to be cooped up in cramped quarters.

Also, I like to arrive at the port as early as possible. It’s so nice to get on the ship early, and the first hours of the cruise are some of the best times for me. My husband and I have a routine: have a relaxed lunch, gather all the new children’s navigators, then soak in the hot tub until safety drill time. Palo and spa reservations are also taken during this time span. It might not sound like a lot, but we are usually on board by 12:30. Even if we arrived by safety drill time, that would be almost four hours gone. The people who arrived at 7:30 lost up to seven hours of their vacation (not to mention the first night’s show and/or dinner).

I know the risks of sailing in hurricane season and that fact that cancellation is normally not possible after final payment. But due to the special circumstances (moving the departure point over 200 miles away), I assumed that the rules would be waived. After all, airlines allow you to cancel or reschedule when your flight time is moved by a certain amount of time, even if the circumstances are beyond their control. We weren’t sure yet what we wanted to do, but I wanted to know our options before we talked to our friends. Surely Disney had relaxed their policy…right?

Wrong! The agent I spoke with curtly informed me that my friends and I would forfeit the whole cost of our cruises if we cancelled! Not just a minor penalty…the WHOLE cost of the cruises! I couldn’t believe that she didn’t at least offer to let us reschedule (goodness knows I have plenty of future reservations to which I could have transferred the money). But no, she insisted that we’d lose all our money, so we might as well sail. Then she wanted to know which bus we would be taking to Port Everglades. Obviously we wanted the earliest one (we could easily go to any resort from Celebration), but she didn’t have that information. Eventually she said we could leave from the Grand Floridian at 11:30 a.m. (putting us at the port around 3:30 p.m….ugh!). It didn’t sound appealing, but she insisted that we make a choice, so I said we’d leave from there.

I called our friends, and they were still game to cruise, so we decided to grin and bear it. But the idea of riding the bus was just as unappealing to them as to us. One of them is in a wheelchair, so being trapped in a cramped seat would have been even worse for her. Instead, they suggested that we do a one-way car rental to Fort Lauderdale and leave as early as possible Thursday morning.

A bit of quick internet research revealed that Thrifty Car Rental is close to Port Everglades and has a free shuttle. They also have a location right across the street from Celebration, so I called to see what type of vehicles were available. They had a Jeep Cherokee for around $35; that would allow us to leave when we wanted and give us plenty of room to sit in comfort and stash the wheelchair and luggage.

On Thursday morning, we hit the road around 8:30 a.m. According to the maps we consulted, looked like an easy drive, mainly all on expressways. Better yet, all tolls were waived in Florida because of hurricane evacuations, so we saved the $11 it would have normally cost us.
Even with a couple of stops, we arrived at Thrifty by 12:30. The agent checked us in, loaded us into the van, and we were on the way to the port within minutes. For anyone who ever sails out of Port Everglades and wants to do a one-way rental, I highly recommend Thrifty. They are conveniently located right at the entrance to the port, and there are plenty of gas stations to top off the car’s gas tank before you drop it off.

It took a few minutes to locate the Wonder, which was not listed on any of the signs. The shuttle drove around while we all gaped out the windows, and finally we spotted the familiar red smokestacks poking up off to the right, in slot 25. It was so surreal to see my sea-faring “home” in such different surrounding. Port Everglades is much different than Port Canaveral with a very industrial look. It is surrounded by buildings, with the city skyline nearby and air traffic constantly coming and going overhead from the nearby airport. That’s a sharp contrast to Port Canaveral, which is pretty much by itself.

Once we found the ship, the van was able to drop us off right at the entrance to the terminal. We were among the first to arrive, so we dropped off our luggage, zipped through the security check, and headed to the check-in area. Disney had transported the Port Canaveral porters and terminal crew all the way to Fort Lauderdale, and it was so nice to see familiar faces in such alien surroundings.

The terminal was very different from the elegant Disney-designed Art Deco building. It was industrial-looking, with wide, open space like a warehouse. It wasn’t at all crowded, since the buses hadn’t started arriving yet, but Disney had set up nearly as many check-in posts as they normally have back at Port Canaveral. Unfortunately, the computer system wasn’t working, so everything had to be done manually. It wasn’t bad with just a handful of people checking in, but I can’t even imagine what it was like when all the buses started pulling in.

Once we had checked in and said hello to many of our friends, we headed outside to board. Normally you go down a gangway, have your photo snapped, and embark in the deck 3 atrium. You walk in on the plush carpeting, with the beautiful glass sculpture overhead and the statue of Ariel on your left, as the cruise staff announces your family name. It’s a very elegant way to start your trip.

But this time around, the embarkation photo was snapped outside, and then you headed onto the ship via deck 1. It felt very strange to see the cruise staff lined up to greet everyone in front of the elevators in the hallway by the medical center! It definitely lacked the pomp of the usual embarkation, but they did the best they could under difficult circumstances.

Actually, I was anxious to get our embarkation photo because it was really one of a kind. We have a wide variety of them, taken over the years, with different backdrops and styles. But none can compare to standing outside at Port Everglades! Later in the cruise, we also got a nice shot with Captain Mickey and a good group shot with our friends in Palo. I recommend taking as many photo opportunities as you can, since you are under no obligation to purchase the photos. It’s a lot of fun to stop by Shutters and see how they turned out. I was hoping to get a picture with Lilo and Stitch (I got one with Stitch alone a couple cruises ago, but I am still stalking Lilo). Unfortunately, due to all of the itinerary confusion, the 7-PALS line wasn’t updated so I didn’t find out about their appearance until it was over. Normally, dialing 7-PALS from your stateroom phone is a great way to find out who is appearing where and when.

By this time, it was 1 p.m., and all the staterooms were ready (I’m sure they had actually been ready for several days due to the previous cancelled cruise). We headed up to good old 5650, my home away from home. I tried my door key…red light. My husband tried his…red light again. A green light means that the door has unlocked. Red means that you can’t get in. After a few more futile attempts, I called Guest Services and was told to bring the cards down to be recoded. My husband did that chore while I stayed by the door with our day bags. Our friends, who were staying one deck up in 6654 (a handicap accessible stateroom) had the same problem, as did countless other people. It must have been one of the effects of the impromptu check-in system.

Once we were inside, we ditched our bags and headed down to Parrot Cay for lunch. We hadn’t eaten any breakfast, since we wanted to get an early start on the drive to Port Everglades, and we knew that there would be no lack of food over the next three days. My husband waited for our friends outside the restaurant while I headed off to Wavebands, where Palo reservations were being taken. The Navigator mentioned that there would be a brunch, but unfortunately not enough people signed up for it (they probably didn’t realize that there was one; it happens only on the four day, but of course our Castaway Cay stop had turned into a day at sea). I chatted with my friend Ali for a bit, marveling at the small number of people popping in to make reservations. It was very apparent that most of the guests had not arrived yet.

Back at the restaurant, everyone had grabbed some lunch and a table. I got a plate and took my usual selection of salads and some freshly carved meat. This time around it was ham (sometimes it is beef or lamb), and it was very good…lean and flavorful. I also took some cold strawberry soup, which I tend to eat for dessert. It’s a lot like a smoothie in a bowl. I hadn’t intended to get anything from the dessert table, but I was tempted by the chocolate mousse, topped with whipped cream and chocolate shavings. I enhanced it with some marshmallows from the ice cream table.

While we were dining, we saw our friend Chef Vinnie from Jamaica. We met him quite a while back, when he was the chef in Animators Palate and gave one of the cooking demonstrations. If you are on a four or seven day cruise, I highly recommend the “Art of Entertaining” classes. At the cooking class, you get to taste the dish (at the one we attended, it was delicious scallops), and you even get a little taste of wine to accompany it. Vinnie works in Parrot Cay now, so we had a few minutes to chat with him.

After lunch, we all headed over to the spa. Prior to the cruise, I had plotted out a pretty full spa schedule, but I had left some time open in case Palo brunch was added on the sea day. Since the brunch was cancelled, I decided to slip in another treatment. My friends are spa people too, and of course my husband is just as bad as I am, so between us we planned three days full of decadent treatments.

Normally the spa is quite crowded, but because of the delays in transportation, there was only handful of people. I noticed that there is no longer a charge for the exercise classes; they used to be free, but a charge was instituted a couple of months back. I was glad to see that they’re back to being free, as I enjoy the yoga classes. There is normally an early morning yoga session on Castaway Cay; of course, that wouldn’t be happening this time, but I will be looking forward to it in November.

When Floyd rampaged over Castaway Cay a few years back, it totally destroyed the dock and caused major damage to the buildings and equipment. The island was out of commission for many long weeks. Disney did an admirable job of restoring it, but my husband and I knew it so well from previous visits that changes and remnants of the destruction were still apparent.
This time around, we were told that most of the damage was cosmetic. Due to the cancelled cruise, the ship had time to go to Castaway Cay, and virtually every crew member had gone ashore to start the restoration. They were confronted with a newly formed beach where the path from the ship to the family beach had once been. There were rocks everywhere, and Mother Nature had done what Disney was planning to do: dredged the adult beach. Thankfully, the buildings and dock were pretty much intact, so once the sand is removed from where it shouldn’t be and put back where it should, guests will be able to return to the island paradise. Hopefully that will be done within a week or two.

Once we had finalized our spa schedules, we headed off to our staterooms. Normally my husband and I spend a little time in the hot tub, but between arriving a later than usual and spending some time chatting over lunch, we realized that it was almost time for the safety drill. Our luggage had arrived, so Tony put away what he could (he is the packer/unpacker of the family), and then we trooped down to lifeboat station Q in Animators Palate, looking like mutated relatives of Spongebob in our bulky orange life vests.

At the drill, it was apparent that many, many people still had not arrived. Usually the bodies are packed in like sardines, but this time there was enough room for everyone to sit, with lots of chairs to spare. Seeing how late the buses were coming in made me happy that we had chosen to drive.

After the drill, it was time for our first spa appointment. We like to kick off our cruises lying on a massage table up on deck 9; there’s no better way to officially start your vacation. Normally, this coincides with the sailaway, but since we were still waiting for so many people, the ship remained stationary. They did blow the Mickey whistle at the traditional time, though, so I got to hear the first notes of “When You Wish Upon A Star” as I luxuriated in the bliss of a reflexology treatment.

Reflexology is very similar to a foot massage, but the masseuse works on the pressure points of your feet. I love having my feet massaged (actually, I love any sort of massage), and I usually schedule this treatment on the afternoon of Castaway Cay day. The returning cruisers party usually starts at 5:15, and I like to spend as much time on the island as possible. If I schedule a regular massage before the party, I have to allow enough time to wash my hair, which gets yucky from the massage oil. With reflexology, I can pretty much go right from the treatment to the party, since they only work on your feet. You don’t even have to get undressed, so it’s good for shy people too.

But with Castaway Cay being a sea day, I decided to schedule a couple of more intensive treatments on Saturday and flip the reflexology to Thursday. I was quite exhausted from waking up early and driving for four hours, so it was like Heaven. I kept drifting off to sleep. It was absolutely wonderful, but the time went by too quickly, and soon enough I had to peel my comatose body off the table and return to my stateroom to get ready for the show.

The first night is usually kicked off with “Hercules,” a live vaudeville-style production based on the cartoon. If you’ve never seen the movie, it won’t make as much sense and you’ll miss some of the inside jokes. But it’s funny in a very corny sort of way, and Hades, Pain, and Panic always steal the show. This was a brand-new cast (this was actually their cruise performing for guests), so I was anxious to see how well they would do. We usually cruise enough to see the casts at the beginning of their contract and then again towards the end, and I love to see how well they come together as their time on board progresses.

The theater was pretty much deserted, so we decided to sit down front. Typically, we either like to sit all the way in the front or all the way in the back; we’re extreme show viewers. I was pleasantly surprised at how well the cast did, and I enjoyed seeing the twists incorporated by the new Hades/Pain/Panic team. Although the show is scripted, it allows some leeway for the cast to add some improv. The best part is towards the end, when Hades reads the top five things he must do to rule the cosmos. I guarantee that you will laugh! You will also enjoy the antics of the fifth moose/muse.

After the show, it was time to get ready for dinner. Beforehand, we decided to watch as much of the sailaway as possible. At 8 p.m., there was activity near the ropes. It was quite a unique site, as night had descended, and the Fort Lauderdale skyline provided a postcard backdrop of twinkling lights. We watched as the ship was untethered, and it backed slowly out of the dock. The verandah of 5650 provided a perfect vantage point. Unfortunately, it was dinner time, so we couldn’t watch the ship turn and head out to the ocean. Instead, we headed down one deck to Animators Palate.

Most of the restaurants are located aft: Palo is on deck 10, Beach Blanket Buffet is on 9, Animators is on 4, and Parrot Cay is on three. This makes them very convenient to my favorite stateroom. There is even a “secret” back stairway just outside of 5650 that will take you all the way up to the buffet. It’s handy for grabbing a quick snack or bringing breakfast or lunch down to enjoy on your verandah. The only restaurant that is in a different location is Triton’s, which is midship on deck 3.

We met up with our friends, as we had linked our reservations so we could dine together. Our server was Richard from Chile, with his sidekick Laszlo from Hungary, and they had us in stitches throughout the cruise. Animators Palate features a show, but it was nothing compared to the dinner theater performed by our dining team. I laughed so hard that my face actually hurt! Our head server was our old friend Rita from Brazil, so we were in excellent hands.
The look of the menus has changed, and Animators Palate has to be the best. They are hardbound with a little cartoon on the front that actually appears to move when you tilt the menu. There are three different ones, although my favorite was the Lion King. The menus are much more elegant and remind me of the early days of Disney Cruise Line.

I selected a variety of appetizers for my dinner. The seafood wrap at Animators is one of the best food items on board, and I love goat cheese so the duck-and-goat-cheese flatbread is an old favorite. That’s the great thing about a cruise ship. You can mix and match your food items any way you want and order as much as you want. It’s a great opportunity to try something new because you can always exchange it if you don’t like it. My very first experience with escargot was on the Disney Magic, at the urging of a server. Turns out I actually liked it! It tastes like mushrooms drowned in garlic butter.

The dining room was less populated than usual. Overall, this cruise felt a bit like “Voyage of the Ghost Ship,” as there were less than 2000 people on board. I don’t know if they altered the cancellation policy or people just couldn’t get there, but the crowd was definitely light. Oddly enough, the adult pool was packed every single day. Usually, the family pools do a booming business, while there are only a handful of people scattered in the adult area. This time, a lot of people must have left the kids at home, as the adult hot tubs were always backed with bodies, and the pool was full of swimmers and loungers.

After dinner, we would have typically gone to 80s Night, but my husband and I were exhausted from the long journey to the port. We said goodnight to our friends and crashed into bed. Oddly enough, this was the only time I’ve ever had noisy neighbors in 5650. It’s so far off the beaten path that it’s rare for anyone to pass it by, and there are no staterooms across the hall. The peace, quiet, and isolation are a big part of the reason why it’s my favorite. But this time, I could hear people talking loudly nearby, and they didn’t go away. I was already in my nightgown and to lazy to open the door to locate and glare at them, so I just turned on my white noise machine. Problem solved! Soon I was drifting into Disney dreams.

I never figured out which stateroom the yakkers were in or why they were out in the hall so much, although I did hear them throughout the cruise. That is very unusual in 5650, but I bring the white noise machine anyway. I felt sorry for the people closer to the head of the hallway, as there was a little boy outside banging on the door of one stateroom almost every time we passed. I don’t think he ever brought his key (or maybe his parents confiscated it so he couldn’t run up charges). My husband noticed that he had a sibling who delighted in leaving him out there pounding while she refused to answer the door or taunted him and then slammed it. That’s why I loved my far-aft home…there is only a stateroom on one side, and no one across the hall, which greatly reduces your chances of being near the Family from Hell.

I had pre-ordered breakfast, which served the dual purpose of acting as a wake-up call and giving us a chance to enjoy some quality verandah time eating outside. You can fill out a door hanger the night before, and your order will be delivered the next morning at the time you specify. They are usually so prompt that you can set your watch by them.

By the time we woke up, the ship had docked in Nassau. Despite the hurricane damage, they were already welcoming tourists. Since Castaway Cay was not going to be in any sort of shape for guests for at least a couple of weeks, our altered itinerary had us staying in Nassau overnight. Then we would head out for a day at sea on Saturday. Our port of disembarkation was still up in the air, although I was rooting for Port Canaveral. We couldn’t make a car reservation, since we didn’t know where we’d be, so we were planning to take the Disney bus. After hearing horror stories of the infamous four-hour ride from other guests, we were none too keen on experiencing it ourselves.

We always pretend that Nassau is a day at sea, so we had booked our typical spa treatments. For me, it was a hot stone massage, while Tony had his usual seaweed wrap. We also spent some quality verandah time and hole up in the Tropical Rainforest for a while. The Rainforest was nearly deserted, which surprised me, but I didn’t mind as that meant I had no trouble getting one of the four heated tile loungers. I love to curl up in them with a good book. The mild sauna and scented showers are also favorites. My husband likes the hotter steam rooms, but I have low blood pressure so I can’t handle those for too long. The mild sauna is just the right temperature for me to relax without getting light headed.

We met out friends for lunch at Beach Blanket Buffet. Normally I like to eat inside, in the air conditioning, but the weather was very pleasant so we opted to dine al fresco. The buffet has a nice selection of salads, main courses, and best of all, free soda. Disney recently introduced no-cost soda at the buffet and the deck 9 beverage station. Although I prefer iced tea, the free pop is a boon to families with soda-drinking kids or people who can’t live without their Coke or Sprite. They also upgraded the iced tea in the table-service restaurants from the Nestea swill that comes out of a tap to the fresh-brewed kind. But oddly enough, we were served tap iced tea at lunch in Parrot Cay on Saturday. I can tell the difference the moment the first drop touches my tongue. Oh well, it’s nice to get the real stuff most of the time. If your tastes are adventurous, you might want to try one of the flavored hot teas over ice. Back when tap tea was the standard, I used to get the hot stuff in either black currant or mint and pour it over a glass of ice for a real taste treat.

That night’s show was “The Golden Mickeys,” which is my favorite. My husband still prefers “Disney Dreams,” and I’ll admit that it’s a wonderful show. We’ve seen it over 40 times, since we’ve caught it twice on some cruises that have had an afternoon matinee, and I never get tired of it. But “Golden Mickeys” could have been written based specifically on my taste. It has my favorite Disney character (Stitch), my favorite villains (Ursula and Cruella), and one of my favorite Disney movie songs (“Son of Man” from Tarzan). Add in the tribute to Walt, the adorable Snow White number with the kids playing dwarves and the “Lion King” number that always reminds me of the Broadway play and you have a winner.

There are many other songs and movies represented, including “Sleeping Beauty,” “Mulan,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “Lady and the Tramp,” “Pocahontas,” and “Toy Story.” You may wonder how they fit all this into less than an hour…picture a series of rapid-fire Cliff Notes-version numbers. The cast was excellent, and my only complaint was that, as always, it was over much too quickly.

We were scheduled to dine in Palo that night, so after the show we hurried back to our stateroom to change from our vacation “uniform” of t-shirts and shorts to something a little more formal. Actually, I usually wear jeans rather than shorts to the theater because it tends to be quite cold. The attire on Disney Cruise Line tends to be quite casual, especially on the Wonder. But my husband and I enjoy dressing up for dinner, especially when we’re eating at Palo. It adds to that “special occasion” atmosphere.

Although I have favorite items in all of the restaurants on Disney’s ships, Palo is definitely a step above. It has its own galley where the food is made to order, just like in a land-based restaurant. In addition to the usual menu items, there are always one or two specials to tempt you and make your decision all the harder.

We were dining with our friends, and one of them comes from an Argentinean family. Coincidentally, our waiter Marcello was from Argentina, as was the chef. Needless to say, there was immediate bonding, and the chef, Christian, whipped us up a batch of chimichurri sauce. It is primarily meant to be eaten on beef, but I discovered that it was wonderful on my cod, too. It is very heavy on garlic, which I absolutely adore. Between the never-ending appetizers and my main course (the cod was one of the specials of the day), it was a challenge to save room for dessert. But there’s no way I would ever miss that famous Palo chocolate soufflé. My husband is not as big of a chocoholic as I am, so he opted for the pistachio tart. The panna cotta is good, too, but for me the soufflé is the ultimate. Normally it is topped with both chocolate and vanilla sauce, but lately I’ve been opting for vanilla only. It provides a pleasant counterpoint to the richness of the soufflé.

By the time we were done working our way through all the courses and chatting, it was too late to make the “Match Your Mate” show. Our friends were still game for partying, so they headed off to Route 66, but my husband and I were ready for bed. After all, we had to rest up for a another big day of spa appointments, shows, and eating!

Normally Saturday would be Castaway Cay day, but for the first time in 39 cruises we were going to miss the island. I think it was a lot easier knowing that in advance. I can only imagine the disappointment when the ship can get close to the island but cannot dock because of the wind or wave conditions. That almost happened to us last November, but somehow the captain managed to get the ship in. It would have been so sad if he’d had to give up after trying so hard. This time, we already knew that there was no possible way the hurricane-damaged island would be ready for us. Our sadness was tempered by the fact that at least there was no major damage to the dock or structures, and we were looking forward to the additional activities that we knew would be planned for our impromptu sea day.

Sure enough, our Navigator listed all sorts of fun things to look forward to the next day. There was a cooking demonstration, galley tours, “The Making of the Magic and Wonder,” and even a towel animal folding class. I had two spa appointments (spa taster and seaweed wrap) that unfortunately conflicted with most of the events. But my husband was looking forward to seeing the galley and picking up towel animal information for our website. How to make towel animals is one of the most frequent questions I receive.

Once again, we planned our breakfast order as our wake-up call and drifted off to dreamland. In the morning, I was vaguely aware when we left Nassau because I could hear the thrusters, but then I drifted back to sleep until the food arrived. Even though it was somewhat sad not to be at Castaway Cay, I was pleased to have extra time to enjoy the verandah. On a three-night cruise, I typically have to slot in some time for relaxing outside, and it’s hard to fit into a rush-rush schedule when you’ve got less than 72 hours on the ship. My husband and I take three-day cruises because they allow us to maximize our vacation time, but they fly by with lightning speed.

As much as I love Castaway Cay, it sends a subliminal signal that the cruise is almost over. A day on the island is always hectic, as we try to fit in as much beach time as possible. This time, even though it was Saturday, the change in routine made it feel less like the last day. Instead of hustling, I felt so relaxed. The only thing I had to hurry for was my spa appointment at 10:30 a.m.

I had scheduled a spa taster, which consists of a 25 minute massage, followed by a mini facial. I used to get the Absolute Face and Body treatment, which is a much longer version, but the price recently went up significantly. The spa taster is a more economical way to indulge. It goes by quickly, but then again, all spa treatments do.

While I was in the spa, my husband did his workout routine. When we cruise, he is great about actually doing some physical activity to counteract the effects of so much food. And speaking of food, when my treatment was done, it was almost time for another meal. In the Navigator, we had noticed an activity called “Eat Lunch with the Cruise Staff” at 12:30 in Parrot Cay. We always enjoy chatting with the crew members and learning more about behind-the-scenes life, so it sounded like lots of fun. We headed to the buffet and loaded up our plates. It was a combination of favorites that you usually find at Cookie’s Barbecue, such as lobster burgers and ribs, combined with some other yummy options like banana rum soup.

We looked around for the cruise staff table and were a bit stymied till I noticed a familiar blue shirt. The lunch was being hosted by Linsay from Canada…and it turned out that we were the only guests who showed up! I was very surprised, but I had noticed that a lot of the activities were sparsely attended. I don’t think that people on the three-day cruise are as used to the prospect of on-board activities, whereas people expect them on the four-day, with its normal day at sea. Oh well, we spent some pleasant time chatting with Linsay about life on the Wonder.
The rest of the afternoon was spent in a combination of lazing around the Rainforest and spa treatments. Both my husband and I had scheduled seaweed wraps. Tony also managed to slot in the towel animal class and the galley tour (he especially enjoyed the oven-fresh chocolate chip cookie served to the participants at the end). Onboard activities are a rare treat for us, since we’re usually on the three-day cruise. We have no four-day trips scheduled, and we won’t be on the Magic for a week-long trip until July of 2005, when we sailed from the West Coast.

Also, this was our last chance to see the “original” Wonder. Soon it will go into dry dock and be changed to be on a par with the Magic. The teen club will be moved to where the ESPN Skybox is currently located, and Common Grounds will become the Cove Café, a coffee bar for adults. Barrel of Laughs will be come the Diversions pub. We haven’t personally seen the changes on the Magic yet, but they will be in place on the Wonder by the time we sail again in November.

The seaweed wrap is one of my all-time favorite spa treatments, although I don’t usually get more than one over the course of a three-day cruise (my husband does at least two). First they slather warm seaweed all over your body, and then they wrap you up in foil like a baked potato. You are topped with a heavy comforter and baste for a while, during which you get a scalp and foot massage. Then, after showering off, you climb back onto the table to top it all off with a massage. By the end, you feel like you’ve sweated every last toxin out of your body. Earlier in the cruise, we had recommended this treatment to our friends, and they both loved it.

“Disney Dreams” is the grand finale show on the last evening. As much as I love “The Golden Mickeys,” this one is still my husband’s favorite. Occasionally he will even admit to getting a bit moist-eyed at the end. This show has been around since the beginning (“Hercules” has, too, but the third original show, “Voyage of the Ghost Ship,” was retired a while back). It’s a totally typical Disney story of a little girl named Anne Marie who meets Peter Pan and learns how to find her own magic in order to fly. Along the way, there are songs from “Cinderella,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” “The Little Mermaid,” and a powerful “Lion King” number.

The only annoyance was all the rude people who ignored the “No flash photography” announcement and flared their cameras throughout the whole show. I had noticed this at the two earlier shows, but it was downright obnoxious at “Disney Dreams.” The ones I like best are the idiots who have the cameras that strobe first, and then flash, for a double dose of annoyance. My husband often takes photos, but he is courteous and never uses the flash. In night vision mode, the pictures come out great. A while back, the cruise staff used to run herd on the worst offenders, but I haven’t seen the “No Flash Photography” rule enforced for quite a long time. I sure wish they would start up again.

After the show, my husband dragged me to “Who Wants to be a Mouseketeer” in Studio Sea. We have seen it in the Walt Disney Theater, and he was anxious to see how they adapted it as a small family show. In the scaled down version, you only have to answer five questions, and you are playing for an etched glass piece. You get two lifelines (50/50 and Ask the Audience), and even if you don’t make it, you still get a contestant pin. They really moved the show along at a good pace (one of the things I hated about the big-stage version was that, like the t.v. version, there was so much small talk and lagging). They actually managed to fit three contestants into half an hour. The first two didn’t make it all the way, and we had to leave before the third one was done in order to get ready for dinner. I was disappointed that we didn’t make it as contestants (they do it through random numbers) because I knew the answers to almost every question. Most were easy, but a few were rather tricky!

Our last night’s dinner was in Triton’s, the most elegant of the three restaurants. I really enjoy the green and blue lighting that subtly changes throughout the course of the meal. Once again, Richard and Laszlo kept us entertained, and the food was delicious. We slipped out temporarily before dessert to take photos at “’Til We Meet Again.” This event is held at 10 p.m. in the atrium. It’s a very informal photo opportunity with the characters, including people from the main stage, such as Peter Pan, Anne Marie, the Muses, Phil, Hermes, Hades, Pain, Panic, Mulan, and the Lion King singers. My all-time favorite, Stitch, is usually around, too. He used to hang out around the piano, but this time we found him up on deck 4. You can get quite a few photos with a wide variety of characters in a short amount of time if you are quick with your camera. Since the overall crowd on the ship was light, the attendance was a little less than usual. We snapped some great shots before returning to the restaurant for dessert.

We made our selections, but Richard had to bring some extra (and of course I had to taste those, too). I knew that we’d be skipping breakfast in the morning, so I figured a bit of indulgence wouldn’t hurt. By the time we were done, the 70s Party had already started, so my husband and I opted to head to our stateroom to pack. It was already pretty late, but we didn’t have to worry about putting our luggage out because we typically just keep it with us and carry it off ourselves. Our friends were ready to party, so they headed to Wavebands. I highly recommend the 70s Party; there are some fun dances, like “Car Wash,” and you’ll love the appearances by John Travolta, Gloria Gaynor, and the Village People. I always hate to miss it, but it’s rough when it’s on the last night. I wish that 80s night and 70s night could be flip-flopped, but it’s a problem logistically because the main stage dancers appear during 80s night, and on the last night they’re already busy with “Til We Meet Again.”

On disembarkation morning, we slept in a little later than usual because our friends were going to the sit-down breakfast, and we all wanted to ride the bus back to Orlando together. My husband and I rarely eat breakfast on the last morning because we’re so stuffed from the after-effects of stuffing our faces for three straight days. We were so happy to be docked at Port Canaveral. The prospect of several long hours cooped up in a bus was not my idea of the way to end such a lovely vacation. Over the years, I have gotten very spoiled with using Happy Limo or driving. This time, we would still be on a bus, but at least the ride would be mercifully short.
We sat near Guest Services, waiting for our friends and doing some people-watching to pass the time. Being a long-time student of psychology (I will complete my doctorate by the end of this year), it fascinates me to observe human and family dynamics. Real life is so much better than any movie! You can get a good snapshot of parenting styles and who is in control in a household simply by watching a few minutes of interaction.

The departing guests seemed to come in waves. For long stretches, the atrium would be empty. Then suddenly a huge crowd would descend, almost as though a silent signal had been broadcast, and there would be a line. It would clear out and remain empty until the subliminal message was broadcast again.

We ended up disembarking around 8:45 a.m. There was no line to leave the ship, and we’d all kept our luggage with us, so we didn’t have to pause to find it down in the terminal. Surprisingly, there were long lines at Customs, but they moved quickly. You should your ID and turn in your form, and hopefully you are waved through. The biggest delays are caused by the people who don’t pay attention and have the proper documents ready.

Disney’s disembarkation is a breeze compared to other cruise lines, which make you wait until they call your group. On Disney, you can linger and get off late, as we did this time. Or, if you are heading back to Disney World to visit the parks or have an early flight, you can choose to leave as soon as the ship is cleared by the authorities. It’s such a smooth, simple system. I’m amazed that other cruise lines don’t adopt it. On Royal Caribbean, disembarkation is only slightly less unpleasant than having flaming bamboo shoots stuck under your fingernails.

We were guided to a bus that was already pretty full. I didn’t mind, as that meant we wouldn’t have to wait too long to leave. But it also meant that we couldn’t find four seats together, so my husband and I split off from our friends and headed farther back. We got two seats together, but I think they were the last ones. A few more people trickled on, and I noticed that they had to split up in various parts of the bus.

It had been a long time since I’d taken Disney transportation. Years ago, they used to show a Disney Cruise Line video and Disney World trivia questions. Now, it’s just a long string of cartoons. I enjoyed that, as it kept my mind off the fact that the child in front of me was finding great amusement in playing with her “seat recline” button. How I missed riding in a private towncar! But I didn’t want to book anything with all the uncertainties surrounding where we would disembark. In November, hopefully I can book with Happy Limo for the usual Port Canaveral round trip.

Another trip was over, and goodness knows this had been a unique one. Really, our luck has been uncanny. It’s amazing that it took 39 cruises to hit one with so much disruption. This was a very unusual year; itinerary changes are fairly commonplace to avoid storms, but not cancellations. Previously, the only time Disney Cruise Line ever cancelled a cruise was during the Norwalk scare, and never before have they ever been forced to extend a cruise. I’ve always known the risks of sailing during hurricane season, and I figured that I would eventually deal with them in person. I thought they would probably involve itinerary changes, but I never considered the possibility of a changed embarkation location!

In retrospect, I guess I don’t mind that we couldn’t cancel because it turned out to be a great trip after all. However, I don’t know if I’d feel that way if we’d taken the bus and missed most of the first day on board. Oh well, the $100 credit was nice. Extra money always comes in handy for spa treatments. And I’m not letting this experience deter me…I already have reservations for the same three-day cruise next year, and I'm counting the days until #40 on Thanksgiving weekend.

If you'd like to see the "hurricane navigators," click here. Just remember that they are not representative of a typical three-day Wonder cruise.

Saturday, June 12, 2004

Trip Report #38, June 2004 on the Wonder

Kicking Off Cruise #38
It’s so hard to believe that we just finished Disney cruise #38, especially since we only started cruising in fall of 1998! When I tell people how many times we’ve sailed, I have to catch myself because I usually start to say something in the twenties. Thirty-some seems incredible to me, and it will be even more so when we hit 40 in November.

But it was, indeed, #38, and as usual we sailed on the Disney Wonder and stayed in stateroom 5650. This time around, since we were sailing the Thursday after Memorial Day, we combined our cruise with a visit to Disney World. The good part of doing that is the fun of an extended vacation. The bad part is that when it’s time for the cruise, it’s a melancholy excitement. I’m always excited about sailing on the Wonder, but that means the trip is almost over and I’m just one short weekend from returning to reality.

Off for a Holiday Week of Fun
But that’s getting ahead of the story, which starts the Friday of Memorial Day weekend at Midway Airport in Chicago. We typically fly ATA out of Midway. They like to shuffle their flight times around, but we’re usually on one that lands in Orlando around midnight. Even when we’re doing a cruise only, we still fly out a night early just in case of delays. Chicago is notorious for weather delays in the winter, but snow isn’t the only problem. Even in the spring and summer, we’ve been delayed by fog and thunderstorms. Being a compulsive planner, I like the extra breathing room that arriving a day ahead provides. We fly out after work, so it doesn’t even cost an extra vacation day.

We usually take Cicero Avenue straight north to the airport. There was a bit more traffic this time around, probably due to the holiday weekend, but we still got there in a respectable amount of time. We park at an offsite lot, Midway Park Savers, that is not owned by the airport. It’s right across the street from the Orange Line (train) entrance, so you can walk rather than take a shuttle bus. I am not a big fan of shuttles, and you have to walk pretty far to and from the Midway shuttle bus anyway. When you’re returning and the airport is crowded, it can be an absolute free-for-all to get on the parking shuttle buses. With Midway Park Savers, we always know they’re just a brief walk away. The only potential glitch is the chance of rain, but so far we’ve never gotten rained on either coming or going. Just in case, we pack rain ponchos; one of us would don a poncho, pick up the car, and drive over to pick up the other person and the luggage.

The weather was sunny and warm this time around. The airport had a pretty good crowd due to the holiday. We had already done online check-in, so we had our boarding passes, and we’d switched to our favorite exit row. We fly ATA so much that we know the good seats on all of their planes. We’re usually on a 757-300, which is 44 row plane that uses every bit of Midway’s short runways to take off. I would think it would be much harder to land, too, but a flight attendant once told me that it takes less space to land than a smaller 737 because of the power of the reverse thrusters.

When he did our online check-in, hubby noticed by the seat map that the plane was very full. We sat down at a table near an electrical outlet so I could do some work on my laptop while we were waiting, and we bought some dinner at the food court. Midway has really come a long way from a tiny outpost to a modern airport. While it still can’t rival O’Hare, and while its baggage service is still the pits (waiting an hour or more for your bags is not uncommon), the food court and shops are really nice. I usually get Mexican food at Lalo’s or a baked potato at Gold Coast Hot Dogs. Hubby is partial to Potbelly Sandwiches or Harry Carey’s Restaurant, and if you have sweet tooth, you can stop by Ben & Jerry’s for dessert. The bookstore is nice for some pre-flight browsing, and there are various other little shops.

The Midway Gates of Hell
We didn’t have too much time before our flight, and unfortunately we were leaving from gate A4B. Gates A4A and A4B are the worst gates in the whole airport. They are not really “gates” in the commonly accepted definition. Rather, they are an add-on that requires the walk from hell in a never-ending, narrow walkway. Personally, by the time I’ve completed the walk, I’ve wondered if I’m still really on airport property. One of the gate agents summed it up quite well: “By the time you reach the plane, you’ll be halfway to Florida.” There are some chairs in the walkway, but people usually sit outside the walkway entrance, not realizing just how far they are going to have to hike in order to board. We know the drill, so we went all the way down to the boarding area at the door of the jetway to wait.

At boarding time, the first set of rows was called, then the next set shortly thereafter, but hardly any people passed by us. That seemed odd, since we knew the plane was full. Usually, the minute boarding is announced, the crowd rises up immediately like a tidal wave of humanity engulfing the jetway entrance. Hubby surmised that the people who had been called were still in the process of walking to the gate down the never ending path. Apparently he was right, as the crowd hit a few minutes later. We never heard them call any more rows, so we figured that it had disintegrated into a free-for-all and joined the line. It’s a good thing we did, as there was no rhyme or reason to the boarding process and overhead space was at a premium. Ironically, once we were all on board, we had to wait an additional half hour for our flight crew. They had just landed on a delayed Boston flight, probably on the other side of the airport, and now they were frantically running many miles to the A4B outpost.

The flight itself was smooth and uneventful, just the way I like it. Soon enough we were touching down at Orlando International Airport to kick off our Memorial Day week vacation.

Journey to the Port
Orlando was hot an sunny, and the days sped by as we visited the theme parks and spend late afternoons at Typhoon Lagoon. All too soon, it was Thursday morning and time to head to Port Canaveral for the 38th time (actually, the 39th if you count our voyage on Sovereign of the Seas five years ago). We had arranged a 10 a.m. pickup with Happy Limo. We like to get to the port a little early so we can relax before boarding. It takes 45 minutes to an hour to get to the ship from the Disney World area and 30 to 45 minutes from the airport, depending on the traffic. From Orlando International, you can jump right onto the Bee Line (528) at the North Exit. From Disney World, you can take I-4 to 528. Once you’re on the Bee Line, it’s pretty much a straight shot, with only one split-off.

We chatted with our driver, Chris, as the miles whizzed by, and I knew that we were close when we drove over the first huge bridge. It’s always so exciting to catch your first glimpse of the ships in the distance. The terminal area wasn’t crowded yet, so we dropped off our bags with a porter and headed through the security checkpoint. You have to show identification just to get onto the terminal property, and then you go through a screening akin to the one at the airport. It actually seems to be more thorough, as they require you to boot up your laptop. Then it’s up the escalator, where crew members will make sure that you’ve filled out your documents correctly and route you to the check-in deck.

The check-in area is huge, so there is rarely much of a line. There are Castaway Club (repeat guests) and concierge check-in lines at the far right, but you can check in at any line if there is crowd at the designated desk. It was great to see all of our port friends again. We always feel like we’re being welcomed home. When we first arrived, there was only a handful of people waiting to board the ship. Then suddenly it seemed like the crowd exploded from nowhere! Soon the entire queue was filled.

There is plenty to do and see while you are waiting. The shop model is fascinating, and it’s a neat photo opportunity. You can almost always count on a character appearance by favorites such as Chip, Dale, and often even Captain Mickey himself. There are television monitors that show cartoons, but from what I’d seen, the kids are usually much too excited to watch. They seem to prefer wandering around in awe or stepping outside to look at the ship (there is a large outside area where you can smoke or just step out to get an up close and person view).

Because we sail so often, we know many of the people at the port. We saw many of our friends, including Tanya, Dorothy, Art, and Barbara. It’s always great to be greeted by old friends and familiar faces, and saying hello to everyone makes the time go even faster. We are booked on the Magic for a California cruise in 2005, and it’s going to feel strange to sail from a new port full of new people.

Time to Board
You never know exactly when boarding will start, as it depends on how quickly the ship is ready. Although it’s hard to believe, they turn over that huge vessel in something like three hours. By 9 a.m. one set of guests have departed, and by noon it’s just about time for the next set of guests to board. Boarding usually starts by 12:15, although it may be a little earlier or later. This time it was early, with people marching through the Mickey head, pausing for an embarkation photo, and then stepping onto the Wonder right around noon. We’ve gotten to know several of the Shutters photographers, so we said hello to Monika as our photo was snapped.

We headed over to Parrot Cay on deck 3 aft for lunch. The same buffet is also served on deck 9 aft, at Beach Blanket Buffet. Each one has its advantages. The biggest plus for Parrot Cay is if you are a soda drinker, as you can get soda included with your meal. Beach Blanket Buffet has a more limited beverage selection (think punch and lemonade), but you can dine outside if you prefer. We are not soda drinkers, but I discovered my first nice surprise of the trip: REAL iced tea is now served on the ship! For years, it has been the Nestea-type stuff that comes out of a tap. Some people don’t notice the difference, but to a real iced tea fan, that tap stuff is an insult. It bears about as much relation to real iced tea as instant lemonade does to fresh-squeezed.

In the past, I always requested the servers to prepare hot tea for me and then serve it over ice. Now, happily, the real thing is readily available. Oddly enough, although fresh tea was served at lunchtime in Parrot Cay and at dinnertime in Triton’s, I still received the tap stuff when I ordered iced tea on Nassau day at Triton’s for lunch. Hopefully the changeover will be complete by our next cruise, or maybe they serve the tap tea at lunch to save labor.

I like to load up on salads at lunch, while hubby focuses on the jumbo shrimp. There is always some type of fresh carved meat, and this time it was lamb (my favorite), with mint jelly on the side. I got some cold strawberry banana soup, too. There are fresh sandwiches by the soup bar, and also a kid-friendly table with items like corn dogs, macaroni & cheese, and chicken tenders. Even though it’s meant mainly for the little ones, I’ve seen more than one “big kid” partaking of the comfort food.

We were seating with a family from the DIS boards; it’s always fun to meet people in person that we’re already “met” online. As we ate, we poured over our Navigator to plot out our first day activities. The two things I highly recommend checking out immediately are the start times for Palo and spa reservations, particularly if you have very specific times and treatments in mind. If you have an infant and will want to take advantage of the onboard babysitting, you’ll want to get to Flounders Reef to make reservations for that early, too. You don’t have to worry about running frantically to the kids clubs, as every child on board is assured of a spot. But I’ve had several parents tell me that it’s a good idea to register before the safety drill because the line can get pretty bad afterwards.

That space of time before the drill is pretty much the only time you’ll need to run around or worry about anything. Once you have your reservations all made, you can kick back and relax for the rest of the trip. You probably won’t be able to go to your stateroom immediately after boarding, as they aren’t usually ready until around 1 or 1:30 p.m. That gives you plenty of time to eat, get ressies, register the kids, and generally check out the lay of the land.

When we stopped by Wavebands, where Palo ressies were being taken, we were greeted by Pietro, the manager of Palo, who we know from previous cruises. We also saw our old friend Ali, and at various times during the cruise, we saw Rita and Kapoor, two other friends from many past trips. You can tell that we like dining onboard; many of the crew members we know are associated with food!

A Dip in the Pool
I highly recommend packing swimwear in your day bag, as embarkation day before the safety drill is an excellent time to enjoy the pools. It is probably the least crowded that you will ever seem them. Hubby and I have a tradition of kicking off our cruise in the adult hot tub. This trip was no different…well, okay, maybe a little different. Usually the pool is ice cold, which is why I opt for the hot tub. But for some reason it was nice and warm this time, so hubby did laps while I paddled around. We were the first takers, but as the afternoon progressed, more people wandered over to take advantage of the nice, warm water. One rude (or maybe illiterate) person brought his young kid; when I’m in the hot tub, I like to see how long it takes a crew member to come and shag them out, but since I was in the pool, I pointed out that it was adults-only myself. They left without comment, although I suppose there wasn’t much they could say. Maybe, “Oh, we didn’t noticed the eight signs” or “But rules are for other people, not us.” I’m sure that people wouldn’t like it if the adults took over the Mickey slide, so they should be respectful of the adult areas.

Disney is very good about enforcing the rules, which is one big advantage over Royal Caribbean. On RCCL’s Voyager of the Seas, the kids rampaged from one exercise machine to another in the spa after running soaking wet out of the adult whirlpool, and the supposed adults-only pool on Radiance of the Seas was the only indoor pool. That might not sound like a big deal, except that it was an Alaskan cruise, and the kids would have frozen to death if they didn’t take over the adult pool.

On Disney, in the pools and the adult clubs I often see kids asked to leave. After we moved to the hot tubs, I even saw a group of teenagers carded at the pool. I enjoy seeing the kids onboard, but it’s great to have the option to totally get away from them for some quiet time. If you really can’t stand being around children at all, then Disney is not the right cruise for you. It is inevitable that you’re going to see lots of them on board. But if you like knowing that there are nice, peaceful, enforced adult areas, you’ll love the Wonder.

t amazes me that many parents don’t seem to consider babies as “kids.” There have been quite a few times I’ve seen people with infants be asked to leave the pool or the nightclubs. The best one had to be the people who brought their toddler to the adult beach and then left her on a chair while they went swimming. The poor kid just sat there yelling and screaming! A crew member had to wade out into the water to find the parents, and they were highly offended that they were asked to leave. It’s bad enough they didn’t abide by the adults only rule, but that poor little girl could have wandered into the water and drowned as they weren’t even within sight. Oh well, I guess it takes all kinds.

After a hot tub capper, we headed to our stateroom around 3:30 to see if our luggage had arrived so hubby (the packer of our family) could get our bags unpacked before the safety drill. He has it down to a science, and he was done by the time we heard the warning signal. We donned our life jackets and headed to Station Q in Animators Palate. All of the lifeboat stations are located on deck 4. Many of them are outside, but there are also several stations in Animators and the Walt Disney Theater. Since we are usually in stateroom 5650, we know our station quite well, and I’ve finally mastered the art of donning and tightening the life jacket. The drill only takes about 15 minutes. They start off by taking attendance, and then you see a demonstration of how to use the life jacket and hear an announcement about emergency procedures. Then you are dismissed and join the rest of the salmon. For me, once I’m out of there, I know that my vacation has officially begun.

It’s Spa Time
Hubby and I have sailed so often that we don’t usually go to the sailaway party anymore. Sometimes we enjoy sailaway from our verandah, but more commonly we like to book spa appointments for right after the drill. This time around, I had booked a hot rock massage and hubby had booked a seaweed wrap. The seaweed has been around for as long as I can remember, and it’s a favorite for both hubby and I. The hot rock treatment is new to the Wonder, although I’ve had it a few times at a spa near my home. I was anxious to try it, although a little apprehensive about the boost in the treatment prices. They had gone up quite a bit since our last sailing, so we decided we’d do one more spa-heavy cruise and then probably cut back a little on our next trip. I was looking forward to trying the treatment that replaced the Absolute Face & Body, but at over $200 vs. $144 for the old AF&B, it probably won’t be a regular thing.

We headed up to the spa to join the second-wave crowd. Usually there are a lot of people waiting when it first opens to take appointments, typically around 1 p.m. The second wave arrives right after the safety drill, waiting anxiously for the doors to reopen at 4:30 p.m. There are people who already have treatments booked, as well as a large number who are still hoping to make appointments.

Soon enough we had checked in, filled out our consultation sheets, and were ready for our treatments to begin. I just love lying in a semi-coma on a massage table when I heard the ship’s whistle and feel the movement begin. The spa is all the way forward, so you always hear those notes of “When You Wish Upon a Star” announcing that your voyage has begun.

The hot rock treatment was excellent, and hubby loved his seaweed wrap (but of course he always does). In a hot rock massage, the heated stones are used to give the massage, and several are also placed on various parts of your body. It is so warming and soothing that I had to struggle not to fall asleep. The masseuse performs some traditional massage as well. Back on land, I’ve had his type of treatment done with both hot and cold stones (actually, the cold is frozen marble), but all hot is my preference.

Hercules the Muse-ical
I emerged in a blissful state of relaxation, and I could have easily taken a nap, but it was almost showtime. The first night’s show was “Hercules,” which I’ve seen countless times, although not as many as “Disney Dreams.” Herc is a lot of corny fun that makes the most sense if you’ve seen the movie. Even if you haven’t, you can still appreciate it, but you might get somewhat lost in the plot. For me, it never becomes boring because there are many opportunities for ad libbing, so the cast is able to have fun with the show. We have seen various casts, and each new set of actors adds their own touch. I also like seeing how the same cast evolves over the course of their contract. We saw this group in April, on our Easter cruise, and it was amazing to see how much they have added.

Basically, this show is a Cliff Notes version of the movie “Hercules,” done in a vaudeville style. The only big thing missing from the movie is Pegasus (he makes a brief appearance in the beginning, and you see him at the very end on the Magic, but not the Wonder). Other than that, it’s amazing how they worked in so much material from the movie. The jokes are silly, but they still make me laugh. Originally I wasn’t fond of this show, but over time it grew on me, and now I always look forward to it.

I think that the best part is the interplay between Hades, Pain, and Panic. Hades was funny in the cartoon, but in the stage version, he is even more like a wicked stand-up comedian, and Pain and Panic are his two foils who totally steal the show. With each new cast, Hades often gets new jokes, but some remain the same. My favorite is the big finale, when he is cast into the River of Death and he says, “It’s warm…must be the kiddie pool.”

Chow Time
We were on late seating dinner, as usual. Since we come from Chicago, 8 p.m. is like 7 p.m. to us, and we like not feeling rushed before dinnertime. The shows are arranged around the dining times so that guests who eat early see the show after dinner, and those who eat late see the show beforehand. The shows last about an hour, so if you are on the late seating, you will have plenty of time to get ready after the entertainment.

We were scheduled to start off in Triton’s, which is the most formal of the three restaurants. That worked well for us, since Mickey and Minnie were out for formal portraits. Hubby donned a jacket and tie and I donned a dress so we could get a portrait taken before eating. The pictures are taken near the front of the restaurant, so it was nice and convenient.

We were at table 21, which was a table for eight. I know that some people don’t like eating with others, but hubby and I love to meet new people on the cruise. We eat alone every day back home, so we like to dine and chat with others onboard the ship. Our table mates were two couples from South Carolina (not traveling together…it just worked out that way) and a mother and daughter from Georgia, originally from Jamaica. The two couples were celebrating wedding anniversaries, and the little girl was celebrating her birthday. I could have embarrassed hubby by revealing that he would be celebrating his 50th birthday at the end of the month, but I didn’t because our November cruise is perilously close to my 40th and I didn’t want to take a chance at retaliation.

Our tablemates were all great fun, and I was sorry that we would be at Palo on Friday night because the two South Carolina couples were both eating at Palo on Saturday and the mother and daughter were going to try to move to early seating, which means we would be alone on the last night. I would love to have fun tablemates like them on a weeklong cruise. Three nights goes by so quickly; just when you’re all getting to know each other, it’s over. If you do Palo one night, that makes it all the shorter.

Our head server was Michelle, who we know from several previous cruises. Our server was Richard from Chile. We had never had him before, but kept the whole table in stitches with his stories. He kept trying to convince us all that he and Michelle were married. I had camembert cheese and vichyssoises (cold potato soup) for my appetizers, duck for my entrée, and the white chocolate domes for dessert. It was a hard choice, as one of the vegetarian entrees, a vegetable curry, nearly lured me away from my original choices.

Crashing Early
On our first night, we often crash early to build up energy for the rest of the cruise. We used to go to the 80s party, but we stopped when they removed the Michael Jackson dance numbers. The dances, performed by the main stage cast, are the best part of the party. We heard later that the numbers have been restored, but we didn’t know that on Thursday night so we headed for our stateroom after dinner with sleep on our minds.

There were a pair of towel swans waiting for us, as well as a huge supply of shampoo (I’d warned our stateroom host, Emy, about my hair washing obsession when cruising…my hair is usually either oily from the spa, full of chlorine from the pool, or salty from the ocean, so I spend a lot of time in the shower). Before we crashed, I ordered room service for the next morning. There are door hangers in each stateroom from which you can order continental breakfast to be delivered at a specified time the next day. We typically use breakfast as our wake-up call, as they are great about showing up right on time, and sometimes even a little early. If I didn’t have a verandah, I would probably just eat in a restaurant, but eating outside on your balcony in the sea air is such a perfect way to kick off the day. The room service staff on the Wonder is excellent.

I also called 7-PALS, which is the character appearance hotline. I am obsessed with getting a photo with Lilo and Stitch, but the timing is always off. They always seem to be out when we’re at the spa or have to be somewhere else. I did get a photo at Til We Meet Again a few trips back, but I’ve been itching for a nice photo from Shutters. I was in luck: Stitch would be in the atrium at 9:45 on Friday morning, although there was no mention of Lilo. Since breakfast was coming at 9 a.m., I figured I could eat, grab a quick shower, and rush down to deck three for a picture.

As we prepared for bed, hubby realized that he’d forgotten my white noise machine. It is an invaluable marriage saving tool when you are married to a snorer, and it also drowns out hallway and neighbor sounds. Happily, one of the assets of 5650 is that it is located so far aft that there is virtually no hallway traffic. There is no one across the hall, and it’s very rare for anyone to walk by unless they are totally lost. There are staterooms overhead, but for some reason I’ve never heard noise from our upstairs neighbors while in that room. With no extraneous noise, the only thing I had to worry about was snoring. Hubby has lost 50 pounds, so that problem has cut down quite a bit. As long as I was able to keep him on his stomach, he was quiet.

“Sea Day” in Nassau
Whenever we sail on the Wonder, we stay on the ship and pretend that Nassau is a day at sea. If you have never been there, I recommend that you disembark and look around, but if you’ve seen it once, you probably know that you won’t be missing too much if you just stay on board. It happened to be a holiday, so the stores were all closed anyway, although the street vendors, straw market, and hair braiders were out in full force.

We woke up to the room service knock and went outside to enjoy our breakfast in the sunshine. The weather was perfect, sunny and not too hot, and we had an unobstructed view because there were no cruise ships next to us. All that was nearby on our side was a Coast Guard sailboat. Although I’ve seen the Coast Guard in Nassau many times, I’ve never seen them on a vessel with sails before. We finished up, took quick showers, and headed down to the atrium. Stitch had just come out when we arrived, so we joined the line and got some really neat shots. He loves to ham it up for the camera, as well as to throw the occasional autograph book. I was pleased at the prospect of finally having a professional photo with my favorite character; I couldn’t wait to visit Shutters later to see how the shots had turned out.

On the way back to our stateroom, we passed the Buena Vista Theater and saw that “Home on the Range” would be starting in half an hour. We’ve never seen it, so we decided to give it a go. It was cute, but definitely no “Lilo and Stitch.” I remember reading a review in which the writer stated that it was okay, but more like that quality of a made-for-television special than a feature film. That didn’t make sense to me at the time, but it did once I saw the movie. It was cute, but in an uninspired way. It had none of the evil humor that made “Lilo and Stitch” my favorite, nor did it have the impact of a classic like “The Lion King.” I also hated the digital animation, which made it resemble a diorama. Cartoons should either be all traditional, like “Lilo” (yes, I know there were some digital parts, but it’s the closest thing to classic animation I’ve seen lately) or all totally, unmistakably digital like “Shrek.” Using digital effects in traditional animation looks really cheesy. I cringe every time I see that phony-looking water in the opening of “Tarzan,” or worse yet, the digital hydra in “Hercules.” I have nothing against digital effects, but I think the two mediums need to be kept separate unless there is a compelling reason to combine them.

Okay, enough of my tirade. The movie wasn’t a favorite, but at least it gave us a few laughs. It’s nice to be able to see Disney movies on the ship, especially considering what you’d pay in the theater on land. We don’t usually go to the movies on board because they generally don’t fit into our schedule, but this time around it was too convenient to pass up.

After the movie, we headed to Triton’s for lunch. I enjoy their Hawaiian salad, which is not on the menu but which they invariably offer, along with made-to-order pasta. The menu items are good, too, particularly the pumpkin curry soup. The salad has pineapple in it, and I like to add maraschino cherries. Everything at lunch was delicious, but as I mentioned earlier, I was surprised to discover that the iced tea at Triton’s was the tap stuff. Other than that, everything was delicious. Hubby and I were still somewhat full from breakfast, so we skipped dessert.

More Spa Treatments
Next, we spent some quality verandah time before our spa appointments. Hubby managed to fit in some exercise before his appointment, but I was lazy and curled up outside on a chair with a paperback. The exercise room is free to use, and the treadmills are especially neat because they look down onto the bridge. There used to be free exercise classes, too, but now there is a charge of $10 for most of them. Although I enjoy the yoga on Castaway Cay, I wouldn’t do it now that there is a charge. I belong to a health club back home, so I can take plenty of yoga and other classes when we get back ashore.

My treatment was the Absolute Spa Ritual, which has replaced the Absolute Face & Body. I was anxious to try something new but a little amazed at the price (over $237 as opposed to $144). I doubt I’ll be doing it every cruise, but I figured that one indulgence wouldn’t hurt. In the future, I might switch to Ladies Morning, which is similar to the old AF&B and which costs around $125. Hubby had a hot rock massage, which he was really looking forward to after hearing how much I’d enjoyed it on Thursday.

The Absolute Spa Ritual was very pampering. It involves a massage and a Japanese silk facial, which is different from the facial in the AF&B. It is such a luxurious treatment. My only reservation is the price, but if you really want to spoil yourself, it is a great way to do it. I always love a massage, and the facial left my skin baby soft and glowing. Hubby reported that he really enjoyed his hot rock massage, too.

The Golden Mickeys
The Friday evening show was “The Golden Mickeys,” which is my favorite. Hubby still insists that “Disney Dreams” is better, but for some reason I prefer the new kid on the block. We were on board for the premiere of “The Golden Mickeys” in September of 2003, and I fell for it instantly. The show uses an awards show format, with a character named Ensign Benson as the unlikely and reluctant hostess. It is so fast paced, and it includes many of my favorite songs, such as “Son of Man” from “Tarzan,” and “Cruella De Vil,” as well as an appearance by Elvis Stitch. It’s always a riot to watch Rhona Rivers interviewing people as they enter the theater. Some of the things the kids come up with are priceless.

I love the musical numbers, but my favorite part is the beginning, when Roy Disney himself talks about his Uncle Walt’s background as classic footage flashes on the screens. Disney cartoons and movies are great, but I always enjoy biographical material on how it all began. Sure, it was all started by a mouse, but I like to see homage paid to the genius who invented that world-famous rodent. I love the statue of Walt and Mickey in the Magic Kingdom, and I have lots of artwork with the two of them together and a copy of the statue “Partners” gracing my family room. The sequence about Walt never ceases to make me misty eyed.

We sat in the second row on the right hand side. We have our favorite spots, but we also like to view each show from different angles. We cruise so much that I think we’ve seen “Disney Dreams” and “Hercules” from every section of the theater. The show was great, as always, although there were two minor glitches by the performers. I think that’s the first time I’ve ever seen an “oops,” let alone two in one show. But overall I enjoyed it as much as always. I was hoping they might have a matinee because of the Nassau holiday (they did that on Good Friday on our last cruise), but no such luck this time. Otherwise, I would have definitely seen it twice.

I’m glad that Disney modeled “The Golden Mickeys” on the “Disney Dreams” concept of incorporating lots of familiar characters and songs. I think one of the biggest reasons that people never really warmed up to “Voyage of the Ghost Ship” and “C’est Magique/Morty the Magician” was because they were not “traditional” Disney entertainment. “Ghost Ship” was totally original, although looking back, it reminds me just a bit of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie, with no Disney characters. “C’est Magique” was the same way (no known characters), and with a New Age twist that probably made kids antsy (personally, I enjoyed it). Even morphing it into Morty and adding a guest appearance by Sorcerer Mickey wasn’t quite enough.

By contrast, Golden Mickeys is much like the entertainment you see at the parks, only on a grander scale and with state of the art special effects. You hear all the kids in the audience squealing with delight as they see Snow White, Terk, Stitch, Princess Aurora, and more all appearing on the stage. It’s a real family pleaser.

Later in the cruise, I discovered that Golden Mickey statues are for sale in the on-board shops. I had one more shelf available on my entertainment center where I keep all my Walt and Mickey knick-knacks, so I decided that a Golden Mickey would fit into that space nicely. As I mentioned, my family room has a Walt and Mickey theme. My entry foyer is heavy on Figment and Stitch, with some attraction posters from the Magic Kingdom thrown in for good measure. My master bedroom is my Disney Cruise Line homage room, complete with all sorts of ship knick knacks on every available bit of dresser and nightstand space and artwork scattered on the walls. Framed photos from Shutters fill in the remaining wall space. It keeps me from getting too homesick until our next cruise.

After the show, we headed back to our stateroom to dress up for dinner at Palo. Palo is the adults-only alternative restaurant. It costs $10 per person, and it is work every single penny. Palo is like a restaurant on land, with its own galley and meals that are cooked to order. It serves Northern Italian cuisine, but even if you like simple meat and potatoes, you will still find something to eat. For steak eaters, the filet mignon is as tender as butter, and you can have it with wine sauce or gorgonzola cheese (my favorite). Our table mates, who went to Palo Saturday night, like plain food so they ordered the filet with no sauce at all, and they pronounced it excellent.

Myself, I am usually torn between the filet and the daily specials, although there are several other regular menu items that I like, too. I adore the lasagna, but that is a special that is usually offered on Thursday, and we like to eat at Palo on Nassau night (Friday). If it’s not available, another special usually tempts me away. This time, it was the chicken pasta with a lucious white sauce, although I was almost lured away by the veal scallopini. The chef, Christian, did an absolutely wonderful job.

One word of advice: if you order an appetizer, you may want to skip the antipasto…not because it’s bad (it’s actually delicious), but because you will be getting a LOT of food, and you MUST save room for dessert. Palo chocolate souffle is one of the most divine desserts I’ve even eaten. But one thing I never skip is the bread basket with three sauces, which are downright addictive.

Our server was Dalibor, who we know from many previous cruises, and our friend Dragan was there too. They are both excellent servers, although honestly I can’t say that we’ve ever received anything less than excellent service at Palo. It’s so much fun to make friends with crew members over the course of our cruises and to see how some of them even move around. We initially met Ilana in Palo, and she has now joined Guest Services.

We had a table by the window where we could watch the sunlight slowly fade, with the lights of Nassau twinkling in the distance. Because it was a holiday, we got an extra added treat. At nine o’clock there was a beautiful fireworks show that was the perfect complement to an excellent meal.

Match Your Mate
After our meal, we returned to our stateroom to change clothes and head down to Wavebands to see “Match Your Mate.” It is very much like the Newlywed Game, except that the couples have been married for varying lengths of time. There is one set of newlyweds, one couple who has been married the longest, and one that is somewhere in between. This show is always entertaining, but sometimes much more so than others. It all depends on the couples; some are very shy, while others are willing to “let it all hang out.”

This time around, the couples were a bit subdued, although some of their answers were good for some hoots and hollers. “Match Your Mate” is always a fun way to cap the night in Nassau, and then we head directly to bed to rest up for the island.

Another Great Day at Castaway Cay
Our 38th visit to Castaway Cay dawned bright and sunny. I didn’t know if we would be able to match the “Mary Poppins weather” (practically perfect in every way ) that we had experienced in April, but amazingly enough, it was almost identical this time, too. It was just a bit warmer, but still not muggy enough to be uncomfortable.

Usually we’re among the first people off the ship, but hubby wanted to take the theming tour at 10 a.m. It is one of the few activities that we have not done yet. We slept in a bit and had our room service breakfast delivered at 9 a.m. Then, hubby headed off to learn all about the theming of the Disney Wonder while I stayed back to enjoy some quality verandah time. I love the big but cozy verandah of 5650, but on a three day cruise, it can be a challenge to find enough time to fully enjoy it. Perhaps our next door neighbors were having the same problem, as I never saw them outside even once during our cruise. That’s very unusual…usually I catch at least a few glimpses of our neighbors, sometimes it seems like we come outside on the exact same schedule. But this time, it was obviously an opposite schedule, or perhaps they just weren’t in their room very much.

The verandah was shady, with a perfect little breeze. 5650 is on the starboard side of the ship; since it almost always backs into Castaway Cay, that means it offers an idea vantage point of the island (boat lagoon and beaches) rather than the dock. I settled in with my book, occasionally peering over the railing to watch some crew members doing a lifeboat drill and to observe the jet ski tours leave and return. The time went by quickly, and before I knew it, it was 11:30 and hubby had returned. He really enjoyed it, and he was spouting off all sorts of facts about the patterns of the ship’s carpeting (for example, the only red carpets on the ship are outside the theaters) and how the chandelier in the atrium is actually made of plastic. I guess he was eager to share his new knowledge.

All Ashore
We gathered up our beach gear and headed down to the gangway on deck one. Since it was later than usual, we decided to have some lunch and then set up camp on the family beach rather than go all the way to the adult beach. We knew that the area at the farthest end of the beach, near the Heads Up Bar, rarely ever gets crowded, so there was no hurry.

The only thing that we missed was the photo opportunities. When you disembark early, there are Shutters photographers at various points of interest, such as the Fresh Catch sign, and there are usually several Disney characters out near such landmarks as the post office and Mount Rustmore. Fortunately, we already have almost every conceivable photo, but it’s fun to get your picture taken and see how it turns out,

Our first stop was the post office to mail a batch of postcards. There is an internet group that mails cards to children who are going to be going on a Disney cruise. The kids get a real kick out of getting a postcard from “Mickey.” Most people mail the cards from their hometown, and I doubt that the kids pay much attention to the postmark. But since we sail so often, we like to get some names and mail the cards from Castaway Cay, with a Disney Cruise Line stamp. If you’re going to mail anything, be sure to bring cash because you cannot charge the stamps on your Key to the World card. Also, be aware that it can take many weeks for the mail to make its way to the United States.

Our next stop was Cookie’s Barbecue. I wasn’t too hungry yet; we usually skip breakfast on Castaway Cay day, so my stomach was confused. Hubby had plenty of lobster burgers and fresh fruit, but I had a light meal and some chocolate chip cookie dough yogurt to top it off. Once again, I forgot all about the Caesar salads until I had already gotten my food. There are fresh salad stations, but they are near the picnic shelters rather than in the main serving lines. The salad looks delicious, so next time around I’m going to have to remember to try one before I pile too much on my tray at the main buffet.

Next, it was off to the beach. We hiked down to our secluded end spot, where there were still plenty of prime chairs with umbrellas. Even though it was after noon, the four hammocks near Heads Up bar were still unoccupied, too. But I knew we wouldn’t be doing much lying out, so we opted for chairs rather than hammocks. We chose a shady spot near the restroom, and hubby went off to rent a bike while I headed into the water. He had brought his snorkel gear and wanted to pedal over to Serenity Bay to see if he could find some fish. I had brought a $1.50 air mattress, so I grabbed my book, paddled out into the water, and read while lounging on the mattress in the balmy ocean.

The sun was warm and shining brightly, so I had to force myself to go back ashore a couple of times to reapply sunscreen. I am very fair skinned and burn quite easily. Even though hubby always packs blue aloe vera gel with lidocaine, which is a real lifesaver for burned ghost-people like me, I prefer not to get fried in the first place. This time around, my frequent and judicious use of sunscreen kept me relatively unscathed.

Stop, Thief!
Hubby returned a couple of hours later to report that someone had stolen his bike! He left it in the rack like he had done so many times before, and when he returned, it was gone. Apparently crime has invaded the island paradise of Castaway Cay! There is no place to get another bike at the adult beach, so he just headed back.

He reported that the water at the adult beach was very shallow, and he didn’t see many fish. He guessed it was because the shallowness meant that the water was a bit too warm for his finny friends. Although Serenity Bay is far from the official snorkeling area, he and I have seen quite a large variety of sea life there. We have both seen stingrays and “aquarium fish” in a rainbow of colors. Hubby’s most exciting find was a barracuda, while mine was a nurse shark, although the ink squirting squid was a close second. Recently, we went snorkeling in the shark reef at Typhoon Lagoon, and somehow it wasn’t quite the same being with nurse sharks in a tank when you’ve had one pass within inches of your leg in the open sea.

Hubby took over the air mattress for a while, and I paddled around with him. Then we decided to return to the ship, as I had a spa appointment scheduled for 4:30. It’s always so sad to leave the island, knowing that in less than 24 hours vacation will be over. But I took comfort in the fact that I’d be back in September, and I had my fingers crossed that we’d have a repeat performance of the lovely weather.

One More Spa Treatment
Back on the ship, it was time to prepare for my last spa treatment. I was scheduled for a reflexology foot massage at 4:30. I knew that meant I would be a little late for the Castaway Club party at 5:15, but the good thing about a foot massage is that you don’t have to undress. You also don’t get massage oil in your hair, necessitating a washing.

I showered off all the sand, washed and conditioned my hair, and checked myself for any early signs of sunburn. Fortunately, other than a couple of small pink spots where I probably applied my lotion too thin, I was relatively unscathed. Even though it felt odd to disembark so late, it was probably a blessing in disguise. Otherwise, when we go to Castaway Cay as early as possible, we tend to spend a bit too much time in the sun. Even though we know better, common sense quickly flies out the window when we’re on vacation.

Since I had eaten a light lunch, I was feeling some hunger pangs. There is no reason to go hungry on a cruse ship; on the Wonder, food is only a phone call or a few decks away. I didn’t feel like waiting for room service; even though they are fast, I had my spa appointment coming up. Instead, I ran up to deck nine for some french fries and lots of honey mustard sauce for dipping. Their sauce is absolutely exquisite…the fries are merely a delivery device. I noticed that they serve cheese nachos and chili dogs, so I asked for a fusion creation: chili cheese nachos. They turned out pretty good.

In the stateroom, hubby had been channel surfing and found a really neat show on the Magic’s last dry dock, when major changes (Diversons, the Stack, etc.) were made. It was a fascinating program, showing time-lapse footage and lots of details on how the old spaces on the Magic were transformed into something completely new and different. I wish they would show it on the Travel Channel or Disney Channel so I could tape it. I already have “The Making of the Magic,” the show about the initial construction of the ship, as it is on the free travel planning DVD you can get from Disney’s website.

After seeing the show, I was doubly curious about what will be done to the Wonder when it goes to dry dock in a few months. We will sail right before, in September, and then we will see the “new” Wonder when we return for our traditional Thanksgiving cruise. I am excited about the prospect of having a place like Diversions, especially if they offer the beer tasting event like they do on the Magic, and I also can’t wait to check out the coffee bar.

When I was done pigging out, I tore myself away from the television and headed to the Vista Spa, where I succumbed to an hour of bliss. I know that reflexology purportedly has health benefits, but I enjoy it just because I love a good foot massage. Any additional benefits over and above relaxation are frosting on the cake. I nodded off, although I did stir twice: once at 5 p.m. when the Mickey whistle blasted as the ship headed out to sea and once when someone ran across the deck overhead bouncing a ball. One of the design oddities of the Magic and Wonder is that the basketball courts are directly over the spa...not the best planning move. But despite the slight disturbances, I quickly became comatose again and dozed until the massage was over.

The Castaway Club Party
For those who may not know, the Castaway Club is the name of the club for returning Disney cruisers. You become a member automatically once you sail, and you receive little benefits on your subsequent cruises. You get a gift in your stateroom (currently a towel, although it might be changing soon because we received a notice that the towels were out of stock and we’d receive one in the mail later; then the towel showed up in our room the next day).

Since our first return cruise was way back in January of 1999, we have seen the gift change several times. There have been two different types of tote bags, plus picture frames, in addition to the current towel. I like the towels, but we have received an inordinate number of them by now. My favorite was the original blue tote bag, which holds an amazing amount of stuff. I still have one left, and I still strain the poor things to its limits. We sold several on Ebay, and now I wish I had kept them as I will be sorry when the last one finally gives out due to my constant abuse. The second bag was a black sports type that is nice, but not nearly as handy.

As a returning cruiser. you also get to attend a party with the captain and some of the officers, where you can get a free drink (alcoholic or non-alcoholic) and munch on hors d’ouvres like cheese sticks and chicken strips. The captain and cruise director give short speeches welcoming everyone back, and if you bring your camera, it’s often a good photo opportunity with the captain.

The party is almost invariably held at 5:15 on Castaway Cay day on the three night cruise. Its location varies, depending on the number of repeat cruisers on board. When the crowd is light, it is often held in the Cadillac Lounge. On the flipside, sometimes it’s so large that it takes over every club on Beat Street (usually only happens on the Magic…I don’t think I’ve ever seen it take over Route 66 on the Wonder). This time, it was held in Studio Sea, and the crowd was pretty light.

I arrived a bit later than I expected, so Captain Henry was already giving his speech. I slipped in and found hubby at a table towards the front. I was full so I didn’t partake of snacks and drinks, but I was glad to say hello to the captain and to meet Kara, the cruise director. We had actually met her before, but not since she’d taken her new position. Tony reported that our friend Linsay was also there, although I missed her due to my late arrival.

Disney Dreams
When the party ended, we headed to the theater to see “Disney Dreams,” which is still hubby’s favorite show. I think he could watch it all day, if possible; even after seeing it at the theater, he always keeps it on our stateroom television all evening. It runs on the television every hour for people who might have missed it. They show “Hercules” on Thursday, but they haven’t started showing “Golden Mickeys” yet. I hope they do soon, as I could watch that one as much as hubby watches “Disney Dreams.”

This show has a very Disney-esque plot. A little girl named Anne-Marie makes a wish to be able to fly to the place where dreams really do come true. With the help of Peter Pan and the inspiration of several popular Disney stories (Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Little Mermaid, and The Lion King), she finds her own magic and ends up with the requisite happy ending.

“Disney Dreams” doesn’t move as quickly as the “Golden Mickeys.” That’s neither a bad nor a good thing; the pace of each show is just right for its style. “Golden Mickeys” has an awards show format, while “Disney Dreams” is more of a traditional story that lends itself to a slower pace. My favorite numbers in this show are Aladdin and Little Mermaid, but I always enjoy the powerful rendition of “Circle of Life” from “The Lion King.”

“Disney Dreams” is a traditional feel-good show that the kids will love. They squeal with delight as their favorite characters appear on stage, and there are all sorts of neat surprises such as the real bubbles during “Under the Sea” and the fireworks at the end (be sure to stay for the second curtain call).

The Last Supper
It was time for our last meal on the Wonder. We skip breakfast on the last morning, as we are usually much too tired of eating and prefer to disembark a little early. I wondered if our tablemates from Jamaica had been successful in moving to early seating. The others were all slated to eat at Palo, so that would mean we’d be dining alone. I know many cruisers who would absolutely love that, but we like communal meals.

When we arrived, the mother and daughter were already there, and we were joined shortly thereafter by the two couples from South Carolina. Even though they had dined at Palo, they were having so much fun at their regular table that they came just to socialize. Apparently we had missed quite a wild dinner at Animators Palate! Between Richard and our tablemates, Table 21 had been the “rowdy table” of the evening.

We had another fun night, as Parrot Cay is a great place to be rowdy. There is a limbo line and lots of commotion as tables compete to make the most noise for their favorite servers. I discovered that I could create quite a din by banging our metal table number with my spoon. We were having so much fun that by the end of the meal, my face actually hurt from laughing so much.

Our friend Chef Vinnie, who is the head chef at Parrot Cay, stopped by to say hello. We met him at a cooking demonstration on the four day cruise of our Wonder “three-peat” (three cruises in a row), so we always touch base when we are on board. He is an absolute genius with seafood (well, actually, with any food).

We were sorry that our cruise was ending, and we wished we had been on a week’s cruise so we could have gotten to know our tablemates better. Ironically, one of the couples had such a great time that they booked another cruise on the Wonder in September…the cruise right before our next one!

Richard entertained us with more of his stories. If you ever have him as your server, be sure to ask him about the helicopter. He had us all in stitches, but finally we all reluctantly had to go. Our tablemates needed to finish packing and put their luggage out. We keep our bags with us and carry them off the ship ourselves, so we don’t have to worry about the 11 p.m. deadline. But we wanted to stop by the atrium to see “Til We Meet Again” and then change into more casual clothes before the 70s party.

Til We Meet Again
When we got to the atrium, “Til We Meet Again” was already in progress. It is the final character appearance, and a prime photo opportunity. A wide variety of characters descend down the staircase in front of Triton’s and into the atrium to take photos with the crowd. The Shutters photographers are not there, so you will need to bring your own camera. In addition to “traditional” characters, there are also performers from the main stage. Usually it’s the bunch from Hercules, and I’ve often seen Peter Pan and Anne Marie, too. This time, Peter was out with Wendy. Usually there are a couple of characters up on deck four, too, but the majority of them are down on deck three.

I was hoping to see Stitch, who is usually near the piano, but he wasn’t out so we headed back to our stateroom. Sometimes there is almost no crowd, and sometimes the amount of people is enormous. This was one of the crowded times, although I don’t think that anything will ever beat the crowd that showed up on our Fourth of July cruise. In July, in addition to the characters, there was a balloon “drop & pop,” so the atrium was wall to wall people, and the sound of breaking balloons rivaled any fireworks display. That July experience was crowded, but very exciting.

This time, there were no balloons, but the crowd density was still large. But even when there are a lot of people, you can still get at least a couple of good photos. When the crowd is minimal, you can get at least half a dozen. We could have gotten some this time, but we opted to head back to the room to change.

The only bad thing about Til We Meet Again is that it can be hard to get there on time if you have the late dinner seating. We actually arrived a little while after it had started, since we had spent a lot of time chatting with our tablemates. It starts at 10, but 10:15 or even 10:30 would probably make it a little easier.

Flash Back to the 70s
Once hubby and I had changed, we headed to Wavebands for the 70s Party, our favorite adult event. It starts at 10:45, which means I like it so much that I am even willing to sacrifice precious sleep to attend. I know that I have to be up early for disembarkation, but I am always drawn to the bell bottoms and platform shoes.

We like to arrive a bit early in order to get a table as far away as possible from the smoking area. There are several non-smoking areas; unfortunately, all but one of them are directly in front of smoking areas. This means that if you don’t choose wisely, you can be sitting directly in front of a smoker even though you are technically at a non-smoking table. As you face the stage, the left hand side of the room is all non-smoking. The ventilation is poor, so the smoke and smell will still drift over to you, but at least you won’t be elbow to elbow with a smoker. I wish that the lounges would be non-smoking during all shows, but no such luck.

As it turned out, the club was almost deserted. Saturday is a bad night, especially at 10:45, because people are still rushing to get their luggage out. Sometimes the 70s crowd is still decent, but it was small on cruise #37 and almost non-existent this time around. I was beginning to worry that it would be cancelled, but the cruise staff held a “Cliff Notes” version (only two Gloria Gaynors and John Travoltas instead of three, and only three of the Village People showed up for the special guest appearance instead of the usual five. Hubby got roped into being a Village Person, so of course I had to jog back to our stateroom for the camera. He’s done it a couple of times before, but not since they started going shirtless.

We had a great time dancing, and one of the John Travoltas was hilarious. Even though the crowd was small, everyone seemed to be having a great time. After hubby’s guest appearance, we had one last dance and then headed back to our stateroom. It was a fun cap to another excellent cruise. I wish that the 70s party was on Thursday or Friday night, but I know that it wouldn’t work logistically. We like 70s night much better than 80s night, although I was happy to hear that the Michael Jackson numbers have been added back into the 80s festivities.

Another Goodbye to the Wonder
Back at our stateroom, hubby took care of the last minute packing while I filled out the Customs form and comment card. I also made out some thank-you cards to the many crew members who made our vacation extra special once again. I recommend bringing some cards because it’s a nice little way to recognize people in non-tipped positions who go that extra mile. We also like to bring little “extras” like phone cards or Florida lottery tickets to add to the tips for those who deserve a little something more.

We hit the bed, and all too soon it was morning and we found ourselves docked at Port Canaveral once again. I always start out cruises with a few minutes out on the balcony, looking out at the port, and that’s typically how I end them too. Hubby and I showered and packed up the last few items, and then I stepped outside and said a quiet little goodbye to my favorite stateroom and favorite ship. I knew that we would be returning, but September seemed so far away. At least our next three cruises come in rapid succession: September, November, and December. And I don’t want to hurry the next one too much because when it comes, it will mean that summer is over.

We hiked down to the midship elevators (most of the time, the aft elevators are not crowded, but on the last morning they are packed with people going to and from the restaurants, which are located aft). We pressed both the “Up” and “Down” buttons, as you are often better off going up when you’re on deck 5 on that last day. Otherwise, the elevator is usually full of people heading down from decks 8, 7, and 6. Sure enough, two full elevators of “Down” people passed us. We hopped in an empty one heading up, and as we headed back down, it was full before we reached deck 5 again.

There was no line for disembarkation, so we said a quick goodbye to Captain Henry, who was standing at the gangplank, and headed off the ship. Unlike Royal Caribbean, on Disney there is no wait to leave the ship. Royal Caribbean makes you wait until your luggage tag color is called, which can be literally hours, and you can’t wait in your stateroom. You have to find space in a public area of the ship. With Disney, you simply leave whenever you choose to. You can have your assigned breakfast, eat at the buffet, or (like us) skip the food altogether.

Once we entered the luggage area, we saw that there were lines at Customs. They moved rapidly, at least until the people two parties in front of us got to the Customs Officer. They didn’t have their ID and documents ready, and of course it took them forever to find what they needed in their luggage. They never thought to step aside and let anyone pass, either. Finally, after several minutes, I rolled my eyes and said to hubby, “Didn’t they say ‘Have your ID and customs forms ready’ about a hundred time?” A man in the group directly behind the line-holder-uppers said, “I think it was more like two hundred!”

Eventually, we made it through Customs and back out into the real world. It is always so sad to see the ship from the other side of the fence and to look up at the verandah where I was just standing not so long ago. Disembarkation is always hard, but at least I could take comfort in the fact that we’d be back the Thursday after Labor Day and I’d be looking out at the port from that same verandah, knowing that other adventure is about to begin.