Thursday, June 10, 2004

Trip Report #21, April 2002 on the Disney Wonder

We embarked on Disney Cruise #21 on April 25th. Hard to believe that in just three and a half years we have racked up that many trips on the Wonder and Magic.

Rather than be a chronological account of our journey, this trip report will hit on some highlights and focus on some useful information. As always, there will also be plenty of highlights on, including photos and the most recent navigators.

Every journey begins with one step, and in our case, that's the step into our vehicle for the ride to Midway Airport. Prior to 9/11, we used to take a limo to avoid the parking hassles. But after several problems (including lateness, no shows, and a "surprise" shared ride that nearly made us miss our plane), we have switched to driving. It was bad enough to be late before 9/11, but now there is no margin of error. Even though it's a pain, I would rather depend on myself. Thank goodness Happy Limo in Orlando is so dependable, which means we can relax and know that our transportation will be reliable once we get there. I wish that the limo services in Chicago were that good.

Whenever possible, we fly out the night before our cruise. That gives us a cushion in case of weather delays, security breaches, etc. I can usually get an Orlando airport hotel for $28 to $33 on or, and so far that price has always included a free shuttle (sometimes there is a free continental breakfast too). This allows us to get a good night's sleep instead of waking up at 3 a.m. in Chicago to catch the first flight of the morning. Then the towncar picks us up in the morning for an early start to Port Canaveral.

For this trip, we were booked on ATA. They had moved our flight time to a bit later than I would have liked, but it wasn't too bad. ATA generally has the best prices, and I used to prefer flying out of Midway in its "small & shabby but convenient" days, but it has been remodeled and it's now just as bad as O'Hare.

I wish that Midway had independent offsite parking, but there is none. There are just several airport-affiliated economy lots, which tend to fill quickly. This time, I thought I was prepared. Not only did we call the parking info. number, but we also tuned in to the AM info. station as we approached the airport. Both of these sources assured us that all of the economy lots were open. We pulled up to the Yellow Lot…FULL!

Fortunately, the Red Lot was open, and we had left with plenty of time to spare so killing a little more time wasn't a problem. Soon we were on the shuttle bus and heading towards the terminal building.

The ATA check-in line was intimidating, but fortunately we had E-tickets. The electronic check-in kiosks were deserted, so we were checked in within minutes. They even allow you to choose new seats, so we switched to an exit row. Then we headed off to our gate, which was in the old part of the airport (although after an extended period of walking, I began to suspect that it might be in another state). We were far from the stores and restaurants, but at least the bathrooms there weren't crowded!

Our flight was on time, and although it was a bit bumpy due to storms in the area, for the most part the two hours passed by quickly and uneventfully. Hubby and I pack Sony CD players, books, and handheld Yahtzee to keep ourselves amused.

ATA tends to be slow with luggage delivery, but this time one of our bags was literally the first out on the conveyor belt! What a surprise--in all our trips, that has never happened before. The others followed quickly, so I called the Renaissance Hotel ($28 via Priceline) for our shuttle pickup. The shuttle was literally waiting for us when we got downstairs. What a welcome change from the Fairfield, where we stayed on our last trip. On that one, we waited 90 minutes for the shuttle. Our first stop was the Courtyard, but that didn't cause much of a delay since it's right across the street from the Renaissance. We marveled at how smoothly the outbound transportation part of our trip had gone.

We were planning to walk to the nearby T.G.I. Friday's for some grub, but the hotel restaurant's menu looked intriguing. That, plus the fact that we wouldn't have to walk, lured us into eating there. We definitely weren't disappointed. The food was quite delicious, and when we were done, it was only five floors up to bed.

The next morning, our Happy Limo driver was waiting for us at 10:00 a.m. to head off to our cruise. We needed to do a grocery stop, and even though we had forgotten to indicate that when we made our reservations, the driver was great about it. We actually wanted to go to a convenience store, so he took us to a nearby 7/11. Then it was on to the expressway and onward to the port.

Since we arrived quite early, things were quiet in the terminal building. We used the Castaway Club check-in line and said hello to the port crew members who we've gotten to know over the course of so many trips.

Disney's check-in process is so painless. I still have nightmares about the check-in for our Royal Caribbean cruise to Alaska last year. You literally waited in line to get into a line. You were assigned a number and couldn't check in until it was called. Then you got another number and couldn't embark until it was called. Unfortunately, the process was very disorganized, and no one even knew what numbers were being called.

In contrast, Disney has multiple check-in lines--you just walk up to one of them. Then they have a simple first-come-first-served line to embark, and boarding typically starts at 12:15 (although it can sometimes be later). If you get to the port early, you can get a good place in line and be one of the first to board. Then you'll have plenty of time for lunch before heading off to make Palo and spa reservations.

You are given a Navigator (activity list) to study while you are waiting so you will know what is going on, when, and where. Besides the start time for reservations, it lists all the shows and activities that you can look forward to in the evening.

There are no longer National Guardsmen in the port, but there is still a sniffer dog and, as always, you pass through metal detectors and your bags are screened before you board the ship.

For hubby, the trip begins when he's plowing through a plate of peel & eat shrimp at the embarkation buffet (served at Parrot Cay and Beach Blanket Buffet). I do have to admit that Disney's embarkation spread is better than the four Royal Caribbean ships we've been on (although the one on Radiance of the Seas was pretty close--the others couldn't compare). Personally, I go for the mahi mahi. I miss the Black Forest cake they used to have, but the chocolate mousse is a close second. hen boarding starts early, the staterooms are usually not ready so you keep you day bags with you while eating. Then you head to your stateroom after lunch.

For me, it really starts to feel like vacation after we've eaten and taken care of business. We slip into the adult whirlpools for a relaxing pre-safety drill dip, and I know that the carefree weekend has truly started. But beware: those whirlpools will bleach your swimsuit! Hubby and I have had enough suits ruined--we're learned to pack old, ratty swimwear in our day bag.

Soaking time is always too short. Soon it's time for the safety drill, which is relatively short. Then it's almost time for the sailaway party on Deck 9. On this trip, we didn't bother to go up. We just relaxed on our verandah, waving to the port crew as we left the terminal and watching the familiar sights go by (restaurants, casino boat docks, campground) before heading out to the open sea, lead by Carnival Fantasy and flanked by Sovereign of the Seas. Cruise #21 was off to a great start.

What would a cruise be without lots of eating? And dining was lots of fun, thanks to our wild server, Katarina from Croatia. She was a riot! She kept us in stitches every night. Our assistant server, Rolando, got high marks from me for catching on to my weird drink preferences quickly. I love iced tea, but I don't like the stuff they serve on the ship as it's from a tap, not fresh brewed. But they have excellent hot teas, including a variety of flavors like black currant and mint (my two favorites). So I always request hot tea and a glass of ice, and then I brew my own iced tea. Usually the assistant servers have trouble understanding it the first night, and even on the subsequent nights some are still confused. It took some explaining the first night, but at our next dinner, Rolando had my hot tea and glass of ice waiting for me.

I am in a rut at Triton's (sea bass or duck) and Animators (salmon), but hubby has gotten hooked on the vegetarian entrees. He is normally a meat and potatoes person, but he decided to try the veggie entrees to review for our website a couple of cruises ago, and now he orders them regularly.

We skipped Parrot Cay for Palo, which was as fantastic as always. Hubby had the veal, which was melt-in-your-mouth tender, and I opted for the pumpkin ravioli. I had a special request for their preparation, and it was done perfectly. We of course topped off the meal with chocolate souffle, which I am fully convinced is imported straight from Heaven.

We were too lazy to go to Triton's for breakfast on Nassau day, so we ran up to the buffet. It's not bad at all--I didn't used to like it, but it has improved and there is a really nice variety of items. We did the lunch buffet too, and as always, it was AWESOME. I am not typically a buffet person, but that is one of my favorites. Such yummy mashed potatoes, turkey, and corn bread, not to mention the conch fritters and taco bar. I still miss the blueberry cobbler, but I made due with bread pudding.

We skip breakfast on Castaway Cay day, and we stayed at the adult beach for lunch. The spread is not as lavish as the one at Cookies, but it is more than adequate and you can't beat the convenience. The only thing I would change is to add some more picnic benches. I don't think we've ever lunched there without having to share a table. On several occasions, we've had to take our lunch to a beach chair because there wasn't even room to share! This is only a problem at the adult beach. At Cookies, we have never had a problem finding a comfortable, shady table, even at peak lunch times.

I can't review "Hercules" this time because we skipped it in favor of the spa. On our last trip, we discovered that Hades no longer does his comedy monologue, which was our favorite part of the show, so there's so compelling reason to see it anymore. You can find a more extensive review in my earlier trip reports, but basically it's a Cliff Notes version of the movie.

We did attend "Who Wants to Be a Mouseketeer?", mainly because I always want to try to get on the panel in order to get one of those coveted pins for trading. Unfortunately, I just don't have the knack for getting picked--but for some reason my hubby does. He has been picked three times now, while I've been passed over every time. Oh well, I still get the pin!

This show is okay, but I wish that it weren't the main stage show. I'd rather have a variety show or play. Mouseketeer moves slowly, like the television game on which it is based, and the audience tends to get restless as the hour drags on. Many people with kids leave early (although those who stay have a chance to win a plush Mickey doll), and towards the end the audience starts giving away the answers. This happens every time I've seen the show, which I don't like because it favors the later contestants.

The questions themselves seem to have gotten a little more challenging. I still know most of the answers, but this time a couple had my stumped.

We saw "Disney Dreams" for the 22nd time and enjoyed it as much as the first. As usual, we attended the 3:15 matinee. Although it requires us to leave Castaway Cay a little early, it is well worth it, as this frees up the evening for packing, relaxing, or spa appointments.

The matinee is rarely crowded. Although I miss the energy of a full house, it's nice have our pick of seats. For this trip, we sat in the front row (hubby's favorite spot), and a large family with several kids sat next to us. The little ones were bouncing around while waiting for the show to begin, but once it started they were absolutely mesmerized. I know how they feel-no matter how many times we see it, I don't think we'll ever get tired of it.

Having been to Nassau so many times, hubby and I rarely disembark anymore. We like to pretend it's a day at sea and sleep in, spend time in the pool and spa, and do some onboard activities. But having received many questions about the straw market (which burned down in Sept. of 2001), we decided to make a quick run into town to get some photos of the temporary facilities.

This was our first post-9/11 visit to Nassau, and there were many changes. First, you must present both your drivers license and Key to the World card to disembark and embark. As we left the ship, I found someone's license lying on the gangway. I turned it in, and I sure hope they got it back as I know they must have been frantic!

The second big change was the absence of taxis right by the ships. Now you must walk into town (not too far) in order to get transportation. Then, to get back to the dock, you must show your ship ID. We also noticed a Bahamian military vessel--I didn't even know that there WAS a Bahamian military.

The third thing we noticed was that the vendors have become much more aggressive. I'm not sure if this is due to a downtown in tourism (and thus in income) or whether its because everyone is concentrated in one area rather than being spread out like they used to be, but it was a big reminder of why we don't get off the ship.

The aggressiveness was a big turnoff. If I say no to one taxi driver or carriage driver or braider, why would another one standing right next to them think I will say "yes?" The barrage was constant; it was like running a gauntlet to get to the straw market. I know that this is typical of a port town, but Nassau was never that bad before.

The new straw market is basically a huge tent, located a short distance down the street from the former location. After the non-stop solicitations on the way, we were in no mood to actually enter, so we just snapped some photos and left. The aisles looked even more narrow than the old building, which I didn't think was possible.

If you want to dicker for cheap souvenirs, then by all means pay a visit. And if you have never been to Nassau, I'm a firm believer that you should venture off the ship and have a new life experience. But don't expect a tropical paradise. We talk to many people who believe that Nassau will be like the ads and who are sorely disappointed by the reality. Personally, if I were a first-timer cruiser, I would sign up for a Disney-sponsored excursion (that's actually what we did on our first trip). But if you know what to expect, and have a thick skin, you can find some interesting things to do at the tourism office (that's where we discovered the horseback riding). You can also head to the public beach on Paradise Island, or even hire a taxi driver for an island tour. There's lots to do, but you need to know what to expect or you can be very disappointed.

Unbelievably, we kept up our amazing streak of great weather at Castaway Cay. So far, we're never been rained out (I can't wait to see if we can keep it up when we do three cruises in a row in August/September). As always, the island was a perfect tropical paradise. There is something new that is really neat…they have added games like foosball, pool, ping pong, and basketball at Groupers Pavilion. Although it was listed in the Navigator, it was virtually deserted. This is new, so I imagine that it will get more popular as time goes on. When you sail, be sure to check it out!

I have pretty much settled into a rut at the spa. Hubby and I get a treatment every day, and we slot in a surial bath somewhere too. He sticks with traditional massages, while I do a massage/reflexology combo, an Absolute Face & Body, and a seaweed wrap/massage. I won't even say what our typical spa bill runs, but I'm a firm believer in the need to spoil yourself sometimes. If you're paying plenty for the cruise already, you may as well budget a little more for pampering. Hubby and I work hard, so we make sure to play hard too.

By now, most of the spa personnel know us, so we are always greeted warmly. As always, the treatments were fabulous, although I still haven't talked hubby into trying the seaweed wrap. He loves the Steiner bath synergies and refreshing gel, so I know he would love it, but he is stubborn. The only difference we noticed on this trip was that we were only given one color mud in the surial (awww, no body painting!).

People at work still think that we've nuts to sail Disney. After all, we're a childless couple, and Disney is synonymous with "kids." Maybe someday they'll understand that Disney is great for adults…so much better than our experiences on Royal Caribbean, where there are no true adults-only areas.

I am always on the lookout to see how well Disney is keeping their commitment to the adult experience. I always recommend them highly to other couples who write to me via my website, so I have to make sure that they will meet those expectations. On this trip I was not disappointed. On the first day, kids invaded the adult pool twice, and they were quickly redirected by crew members. The sad thing was that, on both occasions, they were brought to the adult pool by their parents. One father gave the crew member a really hard time, saying, "But the pool is almost empty."

That was true, but what Mr. Self-Centered obviously doesn't realize is that he is paying for the ability to drop his kid off in programming at any time, while I am paying for the availability of quiet, non-crowded adult areas. So many people have a "me" mentality, without any consideration for others. I'm glad that Disney enforces the rules, even when faced with rudeness and complaints.

On our last trip, we noticed that Disney added a large, prominent sign to the adult beach. We stayed on the family beach on that trip, but this time we spent most of the day at Serenity Bay before heading back to do some kayaking. The adult beach was a wonderful, peaceful oasis. I swung in a hammock, enjoyed a Konk Kooler, and did plenty of swimming in the crystal clear water. Ahhhh, paradise!

We had a unique magical moment on this trip. It was just after the Nassau sailaway. I had gone to bed, and hubby was out on the verandah, listening to the drifting music from the deck party. He suddenly came running in to wake me up. Only half-conscious, I followed him outside to a lovely sight. Back in Nassau, they were shooting off a fireworks display. We watched in awe for 10 or 15 minutes, enjoying a perfect cap to a wonderful day. I don't know what the display was for or if anyone up at the deck party noticed, but it was such a neat thing.

The only thing I hate about a three-day cruise is that it's barely started and then suddenly it's over. But Disney makes leaving as painless as possible. You can disembark whenever you want, and now you don't even have to fill out a Customs form unless you've exceeded your allowance. Other cruise lines are wait, wait, wait, but on Disney you simply walk off whenever you choose to (of course, you do have to be off by stowing away for the next trip!).

You are not allowed to bring fruit off the ship, but on every trip people try. As you leave, take a look at the Customs table where you have to leave it (otherwise you risk a fine). By the end of the morning, the pile of fruit is unbelievable!

I remember when I used to dream of owning a cabin on a lake as a vacation getaway. It was my dream to have a little familiar place where we could escape on weekends and relax.

Since we've started cruising, I don't ever think of that dream anymore. The Wonder has become our "weekend home," except that we don't have to worry about the upkeep and the "lake" is a bit salty. I can't imagine a friendlier, more familiar place. On each trip, I'm amazed at how many crew members recognize us, and over time, we've come to consider many of them to be our friends. From shoreside to the port to the ship, they're a great bunch who are totally committed to guest satisfaction.

It will seem a bit strange on our next trip, as we'll be sailing on the Magic for the first time in over a year (we want to try the new Western itinerary). In its 3-day cruise days, the Magic was our home away from home, but it's been a long time so most of the familiar faces will be gone. But that's okay--I don't look at it as a ship full of strangers. It's just a bunch of friends waiting to be met.

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