Thursday, June 10, 2004

Trip Report #19, 10th Wedding Anniversary on the Wonder, February 2002

Cast of Characters & Logistics
Hubby and I embarked on Disney cruise #19 on the 7th of February to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary. The real date is Feb. 14th, but it was cheaper to sail a week earlier. With all the cruising we do, we have to save money wherever we can! Hubby is 40-something and I am 30-something, with no children unless you count the furry (cats), feathered (a cocketiel), and hooved (Appaloosa horses) kind. We live in Chicago, but our hearts are definitely in Florida. What better way to celebrate a milestone wedding anniversary than aboard our favorite ship?

Getting There
The story actually begins the day before the cruise. Ever since 9/11, we fly to Orlando the night before to insure that we'll make it. But I am a compulsive planner, and the plane tickets for this trip were purchased before that fateful day. Our flight was slated for 7:06 am on American Airlines, so we booked the Candlewood Suites near O'Hare Airport ($33 via Hotwire) and drove out the night before. We typically park at Avistar, right down the street from the hotel (valet parking for the bargain rate of $6.95 per day via Last time, Avistar was packed in the early morning, and they were only running one shuttle. To avoid any potential complications, we dropped the car off the night before and took the hotel shuttle to O'Hare in the morning.

The check-in and security lines were mercifully short, but my luggage was inspected, as always, because of my pin case and a bag of gifts for the Wonder crew. The fact that I had a lot of bottles stirred quite a ruckus. I learned that there is a limit on how much alcohol you can take in your carry-on, probably to prevent people from becoming drunk and disorderly on the plane. Eventually they realized that I only had two four-packs of rum coolers--the rest of the bottles were Bath & Body Works toiletries. Once that was sorted out, we were on our way to the gate.

The flight left right on time, but we had to wait a long time in Orlando for our luggage. I was glad that we use Happy Limo rather than the bus because we were able to leave as soon as the bags finally arrived. I had seen the crowd being herded to the buses by a Disney Cruise rep., so I was glad that we didn't have to worry about a potential wait. Instead, our towncar was there within minutes (if the driver is not waiting in the baggage claim area, you call when you get your bags, as the parking is VERY limited--if they cannot find a spot, they must wait with the car). We were greeted by Kahn, one of our usual drivers, and a second driver who was in training for the port journey. Soon we were on our way--a bit later than I would have liked, thanks to American's slow baggage delivery, but heck, at least it wasn't lost! It was a safe flight, and that's the most important thing.

The towncars and limos are still required to drop passengers off across from the port building. There are porters waiting to take your luggage, and you keep your day bag with you and walk across the street to the terminal. You must show your cruise documents and a photo ID before you will be allowed into the terminal. As we passed the checkpoint and headed to the escalator that would take us to check-in, I breathed a sigh of relief--we had made it! Luck was definitely with us--if our cruise had been one week earlier, we would have had major problems, as most flights on Weds. and Thurs. were cancelled due to a snowstorm. But the weather had cooperated, and we were all set to embark on our 10th anniversary adventure.

The Adventure Begins
Since we were running a little later than usual, boarding had already started when we arrived at check-in. But we had to stop and chat with Tanya, Mary, Tom, and the rest of the gang. By the time we were done, the line was gone, so we strolled right up to Security. Unfortunately, small pieces of metal were showing up in our beach bag on the x-ray machine. We never figured out what they were, even after unpacking the bag. Once it was thoroughly checked out, we were allowed to proceed out of the world of reality and onto our floating vacation home: the Disney Wonder.

By the time we were done taking care of business, the staterooms were ready so we headed to 5650, my favorite stateroom on the ship and the perfect base for our anniversary trip. I love being as far aft as possible and close to the water. Deck 5 is the lowest deck with verandah staterooms, and 5650 is as far aft as possible, in a very quiet area at the end of the hall. The only noise is the engines, which is a plus for me as I always sleep with a white noise machine and it's the same type of sound. I dislike noise from overhead or from the hall, but engine sounds simply lull me to sleep.

I was particularly anxious to get to the stateroom because I had conspired with Shirley of The Perfect Gift to create a special gift basket. At Christmas, hubby had complained that I didn't get him any lottery tickets (I didn't, but he didn't realize that they were hidden in the DVD player box). To make up for his trauma, Shirley had created a Chicago Bears-themed basket, complete with a unformed bear on a playing field and lottery tickets stashed in a wicker football. The look on his face was priceless. I had to spend a few minutes out on the verandah, soaking up the ambiance, and then we headed off for lunch.

We headed to Parrot Cay for the embarkation buffet, but since we were running late, the restaurant was full. No problem--we simply headed up to Beach Blanket Buffet to dine al fresco. Hubby plowed into the peel and eat shrimp, while I focused on the mahi mahi and the delicious apple cobbler with vanilla sauce. Once we were refueled, it was into our swimwear and off to the adult whirlpool for a relaxing soak prior to the safety drill. On each of our trips, once we settle into that whirlpool, I know that our trip has truly begun.

The Food
Rather than do a blow-by-blow of our entire trip, I'll organize this report into main headings. First I'll start with food, since cruises are famous as the type of vacation where it's impossible to go hungry. On this cruise, as on the previous 18, our dining rotation was Tritons/Animators/Parrot Cay, and as usual, we went to Palo on the last night. The menus haven't changed in quite a while, and I stuck to my favorites (escargot, duck, and souffle in Triton's, duck and goat cheese flatbread and maple salmon in Animators). Hubby was more adventurous and ordered the vegetarian entrees in those two restaurants in order to review them for our website. Even though he is a meat and potatoes kind of person, he pronounced them both delicious. I tasted his veggie meal at Tritons, and it was so good that I think I'm going to get it on our next cruise Easter weekend.

At Animators, we were presented with an anniversary cake and a serenade by the servers. We also got Disney Cruise Line Magical Moments buttons. Thankfully, we had tablemates to share the delicious cake with. On this trip, we were seated with two other couples: a couple from Canada and honeymooners from Chicago (small world!).

Palo was awesome, as always. I barely remember what Parrot Cay was like because it's been so long since we're eaten there. Hubby is in a rut at Palo--he always orders the steak and gorgonzola cheese special. I was hoping they had the veal marsala again (it was one of the specials on our January cruise), but since they didn't, I opted for the goat cheese pizza. As usual, we had the portabello mushroom appetizer, although appetizers aren't really needed because they serve bread with three wonderful toppings and an antipasto platter. I had the chocolate souffle, but hubby broke with tradition and got the tiramisu. He was dissapointed that the lime mousse dessert with berries that he had last time was discontinued, but I don't think he suffered too badly.

We had a sit-down breakfast at Triton's on Nassau morning. I love their eggs benedict and corned beef hash. The American buffet lunch on Nassau day was as delicious as we remembered it from our last cruise. The only thing I don't like about it as that all the delicious options entice me to overeat--I can practically feel the turkey, mashed potatoes, corned bread, and blueberry cobbler travelling straight to my thighs. Hubby pretty much focused on the cold crab claws and pumpkin cheesecake.

We didn't do room service or the fast food outlets on this trip, and we were too lazy to travel to Cookies on Castaway Cay day. Instead, we lunched at the adult beach, which has smaller but still very adequate offerings.

The Spa
Besides food, a large part of cruising (especially for us) is spending some time in the spa. I did both of my favorites, the Absolute Face & Body (which combines a massage and facial into almost two hours of Heaven) and a seaweed wrap/massage. I skipped Ladies Night in a futile attempt to be chosen for the "Who Wants To Be A Mouseketeer?" panel and get another pin for trading, but hubby and I had some "big kids fun" in the surial and cabana massages on Castaway Cay (he also had massages while I was having my other treatments).

Hubby and I were in separate cabanas, as he always falls asleep and snores. But there happened to be a large, inebriated, and loud group of people seated not far in front of the cabana windows. There was a group of several hundred people from an investment firm on board, and they were apparently part of it. I doubt they realized that anyone could overhear their conversation, as they said some things about clients that made me glad I don't do business with their firm! I think the liquor was loosening their lips. But other than that little incident, having a large group on board didn't have any negative impact on our trip.

It was really neat because many of the people in the spa recognize us and greet us by name now. I never cease to be amazed at how many crew members remember us. In the course of our cruise, we were also greeted in the dining room by Lito, who was our server on a previous trip, and Jonathan, who was our stateroom host last time. It really makes us feel at home.

Activities for the Big Kids
Besides spa treatments, we indulged in all our favorite adult activities. We spent plenty of time in the Quiet Cove whirlpools and at Serenity Beach, with no kids in sight (I saw one "Rules Don't Apply To Us" family, but they were quickly pointed to the family beach. Disney's enforcement of the adult areas is one of the best things about their cruise line, and in my opinion, it makes their ships just as enjoyable for childless couples as for families. The weather started out cloudy, with a morning rain in Nassau, so we were a little concerned that our perfect streak of good weather at Castaway Cay might come to an end. But the sun burned off the clouds and blessed us with another gorgeous beach day. I can hardly believe it, but we're now 19 for 19!

I stayed near the beach, but hubby was adventurous and snorkeled out pretty far, where he was rewarded with a barracuda sighting. He gave it a wide berth, and it allowed him to go on his way.

We also went to the 70s party, which we never miss, and it was especially fun because one of our tablemates was chosen as "Gloria Gaynor." She was very nervous, but I thought she did a great job. In addition to the usual adult activities, we also did some of the family fun. We discovered the "Draw Mickey" class on our last trip, and we had so much fun that we did it again. It's always a blast, even though our final product doesn't bear much resemblance to everyone's favorite mouse, and it's even more fun when Sasha, our favorite member of the cruise staff, is the instructor.

We saw all three of the shows, including our 20th viewing of "Disney Dreams." Even though we have 14 more Disney cruises booked through the end of 2003, I don't think we'll ever get tired of that show. I especially like the fact that there has been a matinee on our last several cruises. That allows us to see it early and have the rest of the evening free to relax, pack, or do other activities. Hubby loves it so much that he has been haunting to get the soundtracks for all of the Disney movies featured in the show. Then he's going to make himself a Disney Dreams CD.

We also enjoyed "Hercules," which has undergone some minor changes that have improved the pace of the show. We have seen this cast on a couple of previous cruises and thoroughly enjoy them. Our favorite is always Hades. Disney always does some great casting for that role. We haven't seen Herc quite as often as Disney Dreams, but it's pretty close.

We went to "Who Wants to be a Mouseketeer?" so I could try to get on the panel (besides having a good knowledge of Disney trivia, I had the selfish motive of wanting a Panelist pin for trading). I didn't get chosen, but we stuck around for the show just to see how many answers we could get. This show is okay, but not really a repeater. I miss not having three stage shows--this might be better as an alternate activity in the afternoon. On the last few cruises, I noticed that the audience starts getting antsy towards the end, and also prone to giving away the answers via applause or just yelling them out. I love "Millionaire" at Disney-MGM Studios, but that one keeps everyone's attention because you can literally play along. It's not as much fun to be a passive watcher.

Pin Trading
Speaking of Panelist pins, although there weren't many pin trading guests on board, there were two great trading pins for sale: The Ariel Artists Choice and the Disney Cruise Line Valentine Pin. I am not a major pin trader, but I do have a collection of pins from my favorite attractions, cast member pins, pins featuring Walt and Mickey together (particularly the "Partners" logo), Figment pins, and of course cruise line pins. There are quiet a few that I have been looking for, but I was low on good traders as we only make it to Disney World once a year. Hubby and I bought our allotment of the special pins each day, which gave me a good stash for trading. I made a lot of deals on Dizpins, and I will be saving some to trade at the Disneyana Convention in Sept. (we don't attend the convention itself because Disneyana is a bit intense, even for a fanatic like me, but we hang out on the fringes to pin trade). With any luck, I'll manage to get chosen for the panel on one of our remaining five cruises before Disneyana, and then I'll have some really great traders.

Sasha, who is a MAJOR pin trader, also had some great cast and Walt & Mickey pins for me. If you are going on the Wonder soon and like to pin trade, be sure to watch for him. I have his photo on my crew photo page, and he is also easily recognizable near the pin trading table because he wears a pin vest.

Returning Cruisers Benefits
As usual, we received our gift (we have quite a large collection of Disney Cruise Line bags in our closet) and stateroom credit, as well as an invitation to the returning cruisers party. On the three-day cruise, this is at 5:15 on Castaway Cay day. We always attend, as it is a great photo opportunity for photos with the captain and ship's officers. Also, I happen to be addicted to the little choclate crunchie things they serve (in addition to the sweets, there are a variety of little snack items such as chicken wings, cheese sticks, and mini quiches, as well as a variety of drinks).

This party was especially fun, as we got to meet another couple who definitely qualify as fellow members of the Platinum Castaway Club. They have done 13 Disney cruises, including the maiden voyages of the Magic and Wonder and the first 7-day Magic cruise. They are already booked for the first Western Caribbean voyage. But the most amazing thing is that they are not travel agents or Florida residents…they hail from Michigan. They told us they like to do back-to-back trips and have also done three in a row, which intrigued hubby. In August/September, we are doing a Wonder cruise Labor Day weekend, followed by Sun. to Thurs. at WDW before we get back on the Wonder. But now Tony is lobbying to forget WDW and just stay on the Wonder for three straight trips. So far I am resisting, as I would really like to see the 100 years of Magic celebration-otherwise, I wouldn't be hard to convince.

The Wonderful Crew
The people I work with joke that the Wonder is like our vacation home, but they don't realize how true that is. After so many voyages, we've grown to know many of the crew members, and they always greet us with a warm welcome that makes us feel like we're returning to a group of friends. We saw all our friends in the port, and we had a blast on board with Sasha, Rick, and Karen. At dinner, it felt like we had two head servers because we knew our head server, Rita, from previous voyages (she is always great), and our friend P.J., who has been our head server in the past, was on the same dining rotation…even though he wasn't our head server this time around, he made sure that we were being well taken care of. Between the two of them, everything was perfect.

I am continually amazed at the excellent memories of the crew. We were greeted warmly by Lito, one of our previous servers, and Jonathan, our stateroom host from our January trip, among others. It really made us feel welcome-for me, a big part of the Disney difference is that the cast and crew are genuinely nice people who really care about the guests.

All Good Things Must Come to an End
The only thing I hate about three-day cruises on the Wonder is that they are over way too quickly. We have to stick to the three-day voyages to maximize our vacation days, but it seems like trip never lasts nearly long enough. Because we had gone to the "Disney Dreams" matinee, we had some free time before dinner to pack and fill out the Customs paperwork, and get the tips ready. We had already charged the standard tip amounts the day before to avoid the long lines that appear at Guest Services on the last day of the trip. We bring along cash and phone cards and add that to the charge slips as necessary for the crew members who have us exceptional service.

Hubby never puts our bags out to be taken down to the terminal for us because he is still scarred from our experience a year ago, when the wrong family took our bags (in addition to their own!) and brought them all the way home to Ohio. We eventually got them back, but it was tense for a few weeks (especially since my beloved Figment t-shirt was inside one of them--that is not a replaceable item). That trip must have been cursed, as it's also the one where my kneecap popped off while dancing at the 70s party, putting me in a wheelchair and full-leg soft cast for the next two months. But even though I have tried to explain that the odds of the luggage being taken again are slim, particularly since our bags are now festooned with brightly colored duct tape, hair ribbons, and cable ties, hubby insists that we keep the bags with us.

Since we had the late dining seating, our assigned breakfast the next morning was at 8 a.m. But after all the eating we had done all weekend, we weren't hungry that early in the morning. Instead, we took our time getting ready before we had to face reality and leave our favorite ship. I stepped outside on the verandah one last time to delay the inevitable, but then we had to go. For some strange reason I had set the towncar pickup for 9:30 a.m. There is rarely a line to disembark or a long Customs line, so even if we had eaten breakfast we would have probably been off before 9. I have a tendency to arrange the pick up too late, but thankfully Happy Limo knows me by now and they show up early anyway.

The Security Line from Hell
Our flight wasn't until 2 p.m., so we arrived at the airport VERY early. The check-in line for American wasn't very long, so we checked to see if we could get on an earlier flight. No luck, so we decided that we would check out the stores and then have lunch at Chili's. We managed to score an exit row, so were looking forward to being able to stretch out a little. But as we left the check-in counter, I saw a frightening sight…the security line extended all the way back to the entrance doors! I suspect that it was because people from all of the cruise lines were heading home at the same time. It made me glad that we weren't in a hurry.

We poked around in the stores, although it was difficult to make your way through the area due to the never-ending line that seemed to snake through every available inch. By the time we had our lunch, things had tamed down considerably and our wait was about 20 or 30 minutes.

Soon we were at the gate and ready to board the plane back to the snowy landscape of Chicago. It seems like we had just settled down into the whirlpool to kick off our cruise, and now it was time to return home, with no towel animals, chocolates on the bed, or Palo chocolate soufflé, and with the tragic offerings of broadband cable (dozens of channels, but nothing good!) instead of "Disney Dreams." Oh well, we can take comfort in the fact that Easter is only seven weeks away, and then we'll be back at Port Canaveral to start the fun all over again (seven more in 2002 and seven already booked in 2003!!).

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