Thursday, June 10, 2004

Tri Report #17, Thanksgiving 2001 on the Disney Wonder

This was our third Thanksgiving on the Wonder, but our first post -9/11 trip, so we weren't sure what to expect. The events that changed America happened only two days after we returned from our last Disney Cruise/Disney World trip. But despite some nervousness, we never considered cancelling our upcoming ten cruises (booked through the end of 2002). We're Americans, and we won't be scared off by the acts of cowardly terrorists. All they did was remind us of the importance of enjoying life.

But 9/11 did cause some alterations to our usual plans. We were booked on United, and our flights were cancelled and changed several times prior to our departure date. We ended up with okay flight times, although the trip home was later than I preferred (there was a 90 minute delay, so we didn't get to our house till one a.m.). But we were grateful that, overall, our travel plans went pretty smoothly, especially since we were flying on the busiest travel days of the year.

Normally, we fly in early on the morning of our cruise, but this time we left the night before. We got a great deal on the Orlando airport Amerisuites ($33 on and fees brought it up to around $42), and they have a free shuttle, so we didn't need a towncar until the next morning.

Our flight was scheduled to leave O'Hare at 6:30. Hubby took a vacation day, and I left work before noon. We left our house by 12:20 and took the backroads rather than the tollway in order to avoid any holiday traffic. We got to the offsite parking lot by 1:30 (we found it through and got an internet rate that was almost half of what O'Hare charges for its economy lot). We hopped their shutte and arrived at the terminal around 2 p.m., a record four and a half hours before our flight. We figured we'd have plenty of time to wait in those endless lines we'd heard so much about and also be able to grab a bite to eat.

But surprise, surprise: THERE WERE NO LINES!!!

On the supposed busiest travel day of the year, O'Hare was less crowded than I've seen it on a "regular" day. It took us maybe 15 minutes to check in, and we were able to switch to a 4 p.m. flight (in an exit row-what a bonus!). The security line looked pretty bad, but we were able to go through a different security checkpoint that had almost no line.

I had my case of Disney pins (roughly the size of a laptop case, and made from the same material), which I was hoping to take as carry-on. Just in case, I had placed it in a rolling carry-on bag, along with a backpack containing my other carry-on items. That way, if I was forced to check the pins, I could secure them in a sturdy piece of luggage and take the backpack with me.

Sure enough, the pins caused a flurry of activity when they went through the x-ray machine. The case was opened, inspected, and even checked for bomb residue. Then the screener sent for a supervisor, and we chatted with the National Guardsman while waiting. He was amazed at the whole concept of a special case just for Disney pins. Ultimately, I was allowed to take my pins on board.

Returning home from Orlando, they didn't bat an eye at my pins. Perhaps they are more used to them at that airport. Hubby got frisked because he was setting off the metal detector. Turned out it was a Zantac capsule in his pocket, as it was in a metallic wrapper.

Transportation to the port has changed, too. We always use Happy Limo, and we scheduled them to pick us up right after breakfast at the Amerisuites. We were among the first people to arrive at the Disney Cruise Line terminal, and we discovered that drop-offs are no longer allowed right by the terminal building. Instead, you get out in the parking lot. Your luggage is taken to the ship, and you (along with your day bag) hop into a shuttle for a short drive across the road. It's less convenient than it used to be, but that's a small price to pay for safety. There was a shuttle right there waiting for us, so it only took a couple of minutes for the whole process.

Inside the terminal, it was nice to see the National Guardsmen, plus a sniffer dog that you pass as you board the ship. I was even asked to turn on my cell phone. I actually felt safer in the terminal than I did at the airport.

We got to the port very early and were one of the first to board the ship. Embarkation started at 12:15, and the wait went by very quickly. We had a great time chatting with Tanya and the rest of the excellent port crew, and hubby wandered around the port taking photos of the Christmas decorations and searching for hidden Mickeys while I watched our luggage.

As usual, the day's Navigator (activity list) was handed out prior to boarding so you could begin to plan your day while you were waiting. I was pleased to see that the Palo and spa reservation-making times are staggered now. For a while, they both began at 1:30, but this time Palo was 1:30 and the spa began at 2. I still recommend bringing two-way radios and having one member of your party go to each location, as you will want to be early at both places to have the best selection of available reservations.

We had our embarkation lunch in Parrot Cay (the same spread is also served at Beach Blankey Buffet), and hubby's favorite giant shrimp were there in abundance (personally, I like the mahi mahi). The only embarkation spread I've ever seen that come's close to Disney's is on Royal Caribbean's Radiance of the Seas, and they didn't have the shrimp/ Disney really knows how to welcome you on board!

By the time we finished eating, our stateroom host was just putting the finishing touches on our stateroom, 5520, one of the six "secret porthole rooms." In case you aren't familiar with them, these are six rooms that are sold as Category 10 (inside staterooms) even though they each have a porthole. The views are obstructed by lifeboat equipment, which is why they are sold as inside rooms. But you still get some daylight, and some of them have a pretty decent view. The downside is that there is a light on outside your window all night, and occasionally there might be a crew member out there doing some work. Both of these situations are easily remedied by closing the thick curtains.

These rooms are all forward (front of the ship), and they are the first rooms in the hallway, so you get quite a bit of foot traffic. My preference is to be at the butt end of the ship, in the peace and quiet of far aft. But the free porthole is a worthwhile tradeoff, and the forward location on Deck 5 is very convenient to all the activities.

One other word of warning: four of the six secret porthole rooms are adjoiners, which carries a risk of potential extra noise. On Royal Caribbean's Sovereign of the Seas, we were in an adjoining stateroom, and we might as well have been in the same room with our neighbors. I've heard mixed reports on Disney adjoiners, with some people saying they are very quiet and others reporting a lot of noise. My guess is that it depends on your neighbors, but we're booked in an adjoiner on our next cruise, so I'll soon know from personal experience unless someone gives up 5520 or 5520 and I can grab it. My husband took photos of all the secret porthole rooms which will soon be available on my website.

Our stateroom host, Oscar, kept us well supplied with shampoo and ice and left a towel animal each evening. He was also a pleasure to chat with, as he opened both the Magic and the Wonder and knew a great deal about both ships.

The menu changed right after our last trip-not much, just a little tweaking. We will be posting them on my website so you can check out the delicious meals that await you on the Wonder. If you can't find something that you like, steak and chicken breasts are also available. One of our tablemates opted for the steak one night and said it was very tasty.

Since our first night was Thanksgiving, all of the restaurants had the same special holiday menu, with a traditional turkey dinner in addition to several other options. Hubby and I both opted for the turkey. It was delicious, as was the soup and the apple/cranberry dessert. We tend to have some special requests, and our servers, Christian and Anthony, were very helpful in fulfilling them.

We made a trip to Palo (the alternative, adults-only restaurant), which was superior as always. I was sad to see that they no longer offer carpaccio, but other than that, the menu was pretty much the same. Hubby had the steak with gorgonzola cheese that seems to be a permanent special, and I had veal marsala, with goat cheese pizza as my appetizer. They also serve an awesome antipasto and bread with three decadent toppings. Best of all are the heavenly chocolate souffles, which are a don't-miss item.

We noticed that the trend towards more casual clothing is continuing. Hubby, in a suit at Triton's as recommended, felt very overdressed. Suits were still in the majority at Palo, but we saw some more casual clothing there, too (at least there were no jeans). Personally, I like to dress up in the fancy restaurants, but the 3-day cruise seems to be leaning towards a casual experience. This might be an industry-wide trend, as we saw the same thing on our 7-day cruise on Radiance. We expected an older and more formal crowd on the Alaskan cruise, but we were surrounded by families who came to dinner in jeans and some interesting outfits that left little to the imagination.

Before I get into the formal activities, I have to mentioned how much I enjoy the simple "activity" of hanging out by the pool and lounging the in the whirlpool. Hubby and I always bring swim suits in our day bags and slip into the adult whirlpool before the safety drill. This time, we had a bottle of champagne to kick off the holiday, and I can't think of a better sendoff than toasting each other in the whirlpool.

The 70s party is the one activity we never miss, even though I got to grooving so wildly on the Magic last January that my kneecap popped off, earning me an unwanted tour of the medical center. The "Groove Staff," donned in full 70s regalia, gets everyone out on the dance floor, and the special appearances by Gloria Gaynor, John Travolta, and the Village People are hilarious. It's a different show every time!

There is also a 50s party, but we usually skip it because it's on the last night, and we are usually exhausted by then and rushing to get packed. We haven't done the Wonderquest or Match Your Mate games lately, but they are both still around, and both offer a fun-filled time.

The Dueling Pianos are still around, too, but after seeing that once, we've never bothered to go back. I've seen mixed reviews on the internet, and personally, it's not my cup of tea. The piano players are talented, but I'm not fond of the overall concept. I still miss the improv comedy, even though it's been gone a long time now. In those days, hubby and I shut down the comedy club every night. Oh well, at least we get to bed a lot earlier now. But I am a comedy lover, so I wish they at least had some stand-up instead of the pianos.

Since we don't have children, I've focused on the adult activities (although there is also a family Dueling Pianos shows). But there is plenty to do for the kids and families. We will be updated the navigators and kids activities on my website very soon.

Speaking of adult activities, before we left, there was a popular thread on the DIS cruise line discussion boards regarding the sanctity of the adults-only areas. Some adults sailing without children seem to expect that they'll never see a kid in any of "their" areas.

I strongly agree that children don't belong in places such as the adult pool or the lounge chairs surrounding it, but it doesn't bother me at all when they stop by to check in with a parent or pass by on their way to somewhere else. It's not realistic to expect that a child will never pass the adult areas. Overall, I think Disney does an excellent job of providing a peaceful adult experience. On Royal Caribbean (Radiance and Voyager), there were supposed adults-only areas, but they were NEVER enforced. On RCCL, hubby and I never had any time away from children. On Disney, enforcement was sporadic on our first few cruises, but now it is much more diligent. On the very first day of this trip, we saw two teens carded at the adult pool, and a man and his very young child were politely asked to leave the 70s party. I never saw any kids on the adult beach, but last trip a couple with a screaming toddler made themselves at home. They were quickly redirected to the family beach after two people (one was me) spoke with a crew member. In all my trips, I've never seen a child in Palo.

This is not to say that a Disney cruise will be a totally child-free experience. After all "Disney" is synonymous with family entertainment. You will see kids in the public areas, at the shows and movies, and possibly even at your table at dinner (although that's quite rare-out of 17 trips, hubby and I have only been seating with families twice, and personally I enjoyed it. It was fun to talk to the kids and see the cruise through their eyes).

But in my opinion, Disney offers a much better experience for childless adults than Royal Caribbean. The option to seek peace in adults-only areas is one of our favorite things about Disney Cruise Line. If you absolutely can't stand kids, then it's probably not for you, but you'd find the same problem on any other cruise line, as cruising is becoming a very family-oriented vacation experience.

Hubby and I saw "Disney Dreams" for the 18 th time and enjoyed it as much as ever. All I can say about it is "Don't miss this show!" It features all your favorite Disney songs and characters, and I never get tired of the ending.

"Hercules," the other stage show, is full of corny humor and will make more sense if you've seen the movie. This show has grown on me after an initial bad experience caused by technical difficulties on our first Magic trip back in 1998, before all the bugs were worked out. The jokes are silly, but they still make me laugh, and Hades always steals the show.

"Who Wants to be a Mouseketeer" is a Millionaire-style gameshow that recently came to the Wonder after being a Magic-only production (it replaced the "Voyage of the Ghost Ship stage show). Contestants are selected randomly from the audience, and they can win stateroom credit, and even a 7-night cruise, by answering Disney trivia questions. Hubby was a panelist (the panel replaces the phone-a-friend lifeline), and one contestant did very well, stopping just short of winning the cruise.

Since "Monsters Inc." came out so recently, there were also several showings in the main theater (the Walt Disney Theater) to accommodate more people (there was also a full slate of movies playing in the Buena Vista Theater).

I won't bother to review Nassau, since we just pretend it's a day at sea and don't even bother to get off the ship anymore. No matter how many times we go there, we never get tired of Disney's private island paradise. Amazingly, in 17 cruises, we've never had bad weather, other than afternoon showers a couple of times.

Hubby and I slept in and made it to the adult beach around 10. Amazingly, we were still able to get a hammock and chairs in the shade. The adult beach never got vary crowded. Because of the holiday, I think that most of the people on our cruise were families travelling with children.

We did some snorkeling at Serenity Bay. It's amazing how many fish you can see there. Hubby had lunch at the adult beach dining area, which has a limited (but still good) menu. I was in the mood for ribs, so I went to Cookies near the family beach, where the full-sized spread is served. When I returned, hubby was sprawled in the hammock, so we lazed around until our cabana massages at 1:30.

We usually stay on the island until the bitter end, swimming and kayaking, but this time we headed to the ship a little early to see the matinee of "Disney Dreams" so we could have some time to relax and pack before dinner.

Even at home, hubby and I are good customers of the local spa, and cruising gives us a chance to be more indulgent than usual. Hubby had a massage every day and holed up in the Rain Forest on Saturday evening, and I kicked off the cruise with a seaweed wrap and massage, followed the next day by an Absolute Face and Body treatment (a massage and facial). If you are wondering what the Rainforest is, it's an area with aromatherapy showers, saunas, and steam rooms. I have photos of it on my website.

We also did the surial bath, the ultimate couples experience. Where else can you body paint each other with mud in your own private steam room? I have pictures of the surial room on my website and a full PG-rated report. There have been some slight changes (for example, the salt has been replaced with a tube of body scrub), but overall it was the same fun experience that we look forward to on every cruise. The only glitch was that the soap dispensers in the shower and several of the product tubes were empty, but that didn't have much of an impact on our experience.

As usual, hubby stocked up on spa bath salts. They are rather expensive, but I don't mind too much because our whole house smells like the Vista Spa when he uses them. Some people are uncomfortable with the sales pitch that usually follows a treatment, but if you are not interested, just say a polite but firm "No." Personally, we swear by several Steiner products, include their massage oils and Refreshing Gel.

Both our returning cruisers gift (another black sports bag to add to our collection) and our stateroom credit were waiting for us, and there was quite a respectable turnout at the returning cruisers party. The party always has tasty snacks and sweets, plus a selection of drinks and a chance to meet the captain and various officers. It's a super photo opportunity, so don't forget your camera. We've managed to get photos with Captains Tom, John, Henry, and Hans over the course of our many journeys.

At the party, we met some people from the DIS discussion boards, as well as a family sailing for their eighth time who knew of my website. I was jealous, as they have the advantage of being Florida residents. Good thing hubby and I have to endure a two-hour plus flight from Chicago, or else we'd probably be on the cruise every weekend till we went broke.

Speaking of meeting people, we also met the DIS's own Webmaster John. Dreams Unlimited is our travel agency, and everything is handled through the internet, so it was neat to be able to finally put a face with a name. We stayed up talking waaaay too late into the night. Before we left for the port, we also met Dave from Marietta, the guru of the DIS discussion board, for breakfast. He's a really nice guy, and I'm still amazed at how he finds the time to answer so many questions on the board.

Disney's roomy staterooms, delicious food, fun activities and shows, and awesome private island are all big draws for hubby and I, but perhaps our favorite part of the experience is the friendly and helpful crew. Disney has the best "cast" afloat. We've met some nice individuals on Royal Caribbean ships, but on Disney the friendliness seems to be everywhere. It would take me forever to list all the little touches that made our cruise extra-special, but at least I can give kudos to some of the deserving crew members: Tanya, Barbara, Tom, and all the rest of the crew at Port Canaveral, who make sure that the magic starts as soon as you reach the terminal; Karen, the Assistant Hotel Director, who rivals Sasha from Cruise Staff as one of the wild and craziest people on the Wonder-we are already looking forward to seeing her again in January; Marianna from Italy (Guest Services), who has patiently served as our photographer at so many Castaway Club parties and who is always so sweet; Brent from Guest Services, who we finally got to thank for his kindness back in April; and Paul (P.J.) for his invaluable assistance in updating the Platinum Castaway Club. I'm sure I'm forgetting people, but the cruise was so overwhelming…it's hard to believe that so much fun could be packed into only three days. We are already counting down the weeks and days until we sail on January 17.

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