Saturday, June 12, 2004

Trip Report #27, Thanksgiving 2002 on the Wonder

A Little Bit of Background
Hubby and I embarked on our 27th Disney cruise on Thanksgiving Day of 2002. We've been cruising Disney since 1998, and even since the Wonder set sail, we've been spending Thanksgiving at sea. It's the perfect way to spend the holiday--no cooking, no mess, no annoying family members. We'd cruise on Christmas, too, but my brother insists that we spend at least one major holiday with the family.

The cast of characters for this trip is hubby and myself. We're a childless couple who delight in acting like children ourselves. We've always been Disney fanatics, and this escalated when we discovered cruising. We already have eight more Disney cruises booked in 2003. As you may have guessed, we believe that Disney is as great for adults as it is for the kids.

Getting There on the Big Holiday Weekend
We fly out of either Midway or O'Hare, depending on where we find the lowest airfare. Of course, "lowest" is a relative term on Thanksgiving weekend. We booked on ATA--the times were not ideal (3:50 p.m. out, 8:50 p.m. back), but it was the only affordable price we could find. Since 9/11, we always fly out the night before our cruise as an extra precaution against delays. Since we don't buy trip insurance, and since we travel a lot in the winter when there's always a danger of a snowstorm, this tips the odds a bit more in our favor.

We headed off down Pulaski (or Crawford depending on what part of the city or suburbs you hail from), which we're found to be less trafficky than Cicero Ave. My main concern was parking at Midway. When we flew over Easter break, every lot was full except the overflow-overflow, located so far away that it was actually closer to Ford City than the airport. But amazingly, this time all the lots were open. We opted for the parking garage, since it costs about the same as taking a limo for a three-day cruise.

The baggage check-in line wasn't bad at all, and we were able to bypass it anyway to check in at the E-ticket kiosk. We were early enough to get exit rows, and then it was off to the security checkpoint where the line was almost non-existent. The news crews were there, probably hoping to find crowds to film, but they must have been very dissapointed.

The food court was as crowded as usual, with every table filled and people circling restlessly to find an empty spot. I have an uncanny instinct for finding people who are ready to leave, so we had a table within minutes. We had some lunch and then killed time until it was almost boarding time. We had a demonstration of how to tell tourists from native Chicagoans...there was a family who appeared to be from out West, at least judging by the dad's cowboy hat. They noticed that a group was vacating a table almost right in front of them, so they moved in. Meanwhile, two women who were standing three rows back saw this and hollered, "No! We're taking that table!" Personally, I would have ignored them, but the family backed off as these two women practially vaulted over three rows of tables to claim their space. I guess what they say about big city rudeness is true! It was amusing to watch, but I felt really sorry for the family who got chased away. Hopefully they learned to be more assertive and eventually managed to find somewhere to sit.

Our aircraft was a stretch 757, and although it was pretty crowded, amazingly there was no one else in our three-across row. We were able to stretch out and spend the flight in comfort. I watched "Friends" and did some reading, and soon we were touching down at MCO.

A Night at Motel Hell
ATA is often very slow with the luggage, but on this trip they were amazingly prompt. I had used Priceline and had ended up with the LaQuinta on Daetwyler Drive, near the airport (not to be confused with the LaQuinta Inn and Suites, which is very nice). I'm not a big fan of that hotel, but at the time I booked it I didn't know any better. Now, I am careful to select at least a two and a half star level so we won't end up there. The first time we stayed there, the rooms were very musty, and it's not near any food except a McDonald's and a seedy-looking bar and grill. But I figured that we can tolerate just about anything for one night. Little did I know!

I called the shuttle, which arrived promptly, and soon we were checking in. The room was a connector, but it always seems to happen when we use Priceline. I imagine that could be noisy if we were staying for a long time, but for one night it's never been a problem. We had requested a non-smoking room, and I noted the symbol on the door as we entered. We were hungry, so we decided to unpack quickly and then head out to the 7-11 and McDonalds.

Hubby bought a Cuban sandwich and iced coffee at the 7-11, and he definitely made the better choice! I should have thrown in the towel when it took literally over 10 minutes for anyone to even take my order at the McDonald's. The woman before me had several kids and was engaged in an ongoing argument on how her order was being screwed up. But since I was hungry, I didn't heed the warning signs. I ordered a cheeseburger and a garden salad. Since I didn't see the salad on the menu, I made sure to ask specifically if it was available. The order taker looked into the fridge and assured me that it was. My next mistake was not checking the order before leaving, but by that time I was ravenously hungry. Unfortunately, the cheeseburger appeared to be squashed, and the bun was so hard that it was crunchy. Instead of a garden salad, I had a Ceasar which was actually nothing more than a container of lettuce.

Since I didn't feel like walking back, and since I knew that we'd be spending a weekend feasting on the ship anyway, I tossed the McDonald's mess and shared hubby's Cuban sandwich, which was surprisingly good. Then I headed for the bathroom and into the next unpleasant surprise--it absolutely reeked of smoke! It was so bad that the smell had been absorbed into the towels. Since it was only in that part of the room, we figured that it must be coming in the vents. We had already unpacked, so we decided to tolerate it for one night. Unfortunately, you can't close off the whole bathroom area in those rooms, and I woke up in the middle of the night breathing through my mouth, with a completely stopped-up nose. Ugh! The mystery was solved the next morning as we headed to the lobby to wait for Happy Limo. Our room was completely surrounded by smoking rooms, including the one that connected to ours! I should have been more observant the night before, but I've never run into that in all our travels. Smoking and non-smoking rooms are usually in their own sections. Oh well, I've learned my lesson, and I'll never bid for anything in the MCO area under two and a half stars again. Thankfully we are at the Marriott for our January trip.

There was supposed to be a continental breakfast included, but even though it wasn't 9:30 yet, hubby observed what appeared to be hotel employees taking the food out to their cars, and there was none left inside. The desk clerk was nowhere to be found, and there was a man already waiting at the counter who appeared to have been there for a while. Eventually the clerk showed up, explaining that she had been feeding her children--I wasn't about to try to figure that one out! Instead, I was just glad to get us checked out and on the way to the ship.

Port Canaveral Ho!
Our towncar from Happy Limo was right on time, as always, as soon we were on our way. We had originally planned to do a grocery stop, but it turned out to not be necessary since we'd bought what we needed at the 7-11. Thus, we made great time and arrived at the port by 10:30. We dropped off our luggage with a porter, and there was no one waiting in line to go through security to enter the terminal building, so we breezed right through. The check-in windows weren't open yet, so hubby seized the opportunity to take lots of photos of the holiday decorations. Last year, there had been two national guardsmen standing by the tree. This year, although security is still tight, the guardsmen were missing.

We checked in and chatted with several of the people we've come to know after so many trips. I felt sorry for them for having to work on the holiday, but it didn't seem to dampen anyone's spirits. Everyone was cheerful and ready to welcome the guests.

Even though it sounds like a long time to wait, by the time we get to the terminal time has already slipped into vacation ultra-warp mode. It was noon before we knew it--time to board the ship (normally, boarding starts around 12:15 or 12:30, but it happened to be a bit early). Our only disappointment was that they no longer do a countdown prior to boarding. In the past, they used to choose a family to lead everyone in a countdown. It was always a lot of fun and got the crowd in festive spirits. We heard comments from other people who missed it, too, so I hope they will bring it back.

Now that you go through security before entering the terminal building, boarding goes a lot quicker. You pause for your embarkation photo, then you give your name to a crew member and they announce you as you step into the atrium and your "wonder"ful weekend begins.

Food at Last!
After my traumatic McDonald's experience and the absence of breakfast, I was ready to dive into the delicious lunch at Parrot Cay. The offerings were the same as always. I like to make a nice, big salad with ranch dressing and have some mahi mahi, prime rib, and alfredo. Hubby always makes a pig out of himself with the jumbo shrimp.

Food was an especially interesting part of this trip, as the menu at Parrot Cay has been totally revamped. In the past, Parrot Cay was our least favorite restaurant and the one that we always skipped for Palo. This time, we opted to skip Animators, where the menu changes are minor (normally I wouldn't recommend this, but we've seen the show over 20 times already so I figured that missing it once wouldn't hurt). We were anxious to try the new offerings, and we weren't disappointed. Parrot Cay has gone from my least favorite to the best of all!

We started in Parrot Cay on the first night, and my only disappointment was that we were alone at a table. We enjoy sitting with other people--since we live together and eat together every day at home, it's nice to have other people to socialize with over dinner on the ship. But we were thrilled to discover that P.J. from Gold Coast Australia was our head server. We have known him for quite a while, and he is the BEST head server. Our servers were Atilla and Tobias, and I was pleased because they did a good job of whipping up my "special" iced tea. I can't stand the stuff that comes out of a tap, so I always get either the black currant or mint hot tea with plenty of ice so I can make my own. I'm not sure why, but this often confuses our servers. I guess that it's not a common request. But they got it correct on this trip, so I was happy with my yummy fresh brew. Our friend Rita, another head server from Brazil, was also on board. She wasn't on our dining rotation, but we did manage to catch up with her during the cruise.

My all-time favorite new item in Parrot Cay is the cold avocado soup. It is creamy and mild, and it's served with pistachio "cookies." Mmmmmm! The prime rib is awesome, and the ribs are a sweet treat that bring to mind the Jack Daniels ribs at TGI Friday's. Hubby gave high marks to the mixed grill platter. The crab newberg is also an excellent choice. I've heard that the new menus won't be on the Magic until April, and I'm very disappointed because we are doing the Western on January 4th. I'll really miss that soup! Oh well, we return to the Wonder in February.

The only real complaint that I've heard about the new menu is that the coconut shrimp are no longer offered. On the four-night cruise, you can get them on the Master Chef's menu as part of a combo appetizer. I used to like them, but I can get them back home at Outback Steakhouse and Red Lobster, so they are not as big of a treat for me as some of the more exotic fare.

As I mentioned, we skipped Animators. The menu at Triton's wasn't changed much, and the food was still good. Hubby's only disappointment was that they got rid of the vegetable stack, which he absolutely loved. He is a meat and potatoes person, but several trips back he decided to try the vegetarian offerings so he could review them for our website. He fell in love with the stack and ordered it on almost every trip. His disappointment was somewhat eased by the fact that there are now expanded vegetarian offerings, so he will have lots of new things to try on our upcoming trips.

Our Home Away From Home on Deck 5
After lunch, it was off to our stateroom. On our Disney cruises, I can almost always be found in one of three rooms--a non-adjoining secret porthole room (5520 or 5020) or my all-time favorite, 5650, in the butt end of the ship. 5520 and 5020 are a great bargain because you get a "free" view (you pay for a Category 10 inside room but get an obstructed porthole). They are good rooms for power cruisers like us who like to save money to finance our cruise addiction and pay for additional trips but who like to have some daylight and a window on the world. The only major downside is that they are in an area where the staterooms sleep four people, meaning that you are surrounded by larger families. That, combined with being at the head of a dead-end hallway, means that you will often have a lot of hallway traffic and noise.

5650 is the exact opposite. It is so isolated that hallway sounds are rare. You do hear some engine noise, but I travel with a white noise machine anyway, and I'm soothed by that type of sound. 5650 has a solid metal verandah, rather than plexiglass, that is somewhat larger than normal due to the curve of the ship. I know some people don't like the solid metal, but personally I love it. I've spent some wonderful serene time leaning on the rail and gazing down at the water below. 5520 and 5020 are the best bargains, but 5650 is my favorite.

Happily, on this trip we were in 5650. It turned out to be especially fortunate because there were lots of large families and groups sailing for the holiday, which means a lot of pounding on doors and hollering to others in the halls. Heading to our stateroom, hubby and I would pass through many pockets of hallway turmoil. We'd breathe a sigh of relief as we entered our "cone of silence" at the far aft. It was so peaceful that we only heard someone in the hallway maybe once or twice during the whole trip.

Usually the stateroom hosts are very visible, but ours on this trip (I.K.) was one of those who accomplishes his tasks as if by magic. You know he exists because the stateroom is always clean and fresh-smelling, and there are towel animals waiting on the bed, but you almost never catch him in the act. He did show up to clean once when we were getting ready for dinner, but other than that he was mostly an unseen presence. I left him a note requesting extra shampoo (since I wash my hair obsessively on the ship due to the chlorine and saltwater), and there was a huge batch waiting for me when we returned.

One word of caution for fellow lovers of peace and quiet who might be considering booking 5650: When the ship is docking, you will hear the side thrusters. For me, they act as a wake-up call, letting me know that we've arrived at our destination. If I don't feel like waking up, I never have any trouble falling right back to sleep. But if that type of sound is likely to bother you, you might not want to be too far aft.

R & R at the Vista Spa
On this trip, I had originally planned to watch the sailaway and have some spa treatments during the evening show. Hubby and I figured that Hercules would be replaced by Treasure Planet, but when we got to our stateroom and checked out the navigator, we discovered that we'd guessed wrong! That called for a change of plans--I was a bit worried, as I didn't get to the spa until 1:45 (appointments started being taken at 1:30), but I was able to get a 4:30 seaweed wrap for me and a massage at the same time for Tony with no problem. Oddly enough, it seemed like there weren't very many people on the ship. Since it was Thanksgiving, I knew that it had to be a full cruise, but everyone must have embarked late. When I got to the spa, I was pretty much the only one there to make appointments, although a few people wandered in afterwards.

The seaweed wrap was as relaxing and detoxifying as always. It also features a half-body massage, and I added reflexology too. It may sound weird to be slathered in a warm seaweed mixture (while wearing paper panties, no less!) and then wrapped up like a baked potato and covered by a warm, comfy blanket to "cook," but try it--you'll like it. My hubby is a recent convert. He kept refusing to try it until our three-peat cruises in September, and now he wants a seaweed wrap on every trip.

Hubby also had a plain massage, and I indulged in the Absolute Face & Body. That is a big favorite of mine, as it is a very long treatment. First you have a massage, and then a luxurious facial. I tend to fall asleep at some point during the facial. I am doing a lot of swimming at home, and the chlorine is really drying out my skin. I have some spa products to use inbetween cruises, but I love indulging in the onboard facial.

We also did the surial bath, which is a great couple's experience. I have a more extensive review elsewhere on but suffice it to say that you can have a lot of fun painting each other with mud in your own private steam and shower room! Sometimes it is hard to turn the steam on, but this time the button was in fine working order!

I noticed that the spa is still offering the foot massage class, but as always we couldn't go because it is at the same time as the Castaway Club party. If you get a chance, I highly recommend it. You go with a partner, and you each take turns practicing the techniques on your partner's feet. They also offered a discount on foot massage oils for people who attended. I hope that they will someday move the time so we can attend again.

Shows and Entertainment
After seeing Disney Dreams 28 times, what else can I say but "Don't miss this show!" It's signature Disney entertainment at its best. I don't like to give away too much, but rest assured that you'll see all of your favorite Disney characters and hear your favorite songs from movies such as Lion King, Cinderella, and the Little Mermaid (one of my favorite parts of the show). Watch for Tinkerbell at the end, and don't leave until the cast has taken their final bows or you might miss something. We did the matinee, which is always much less crowded than the evening performance. Although you have to head back from Castaway Cay a bit early to catch it, it's nice to have more time in the evening free.

Hercules seems to be one of those shows that you either love or hate. The humor is corny, but I still enjoy it, even after seeing it countless times. We haven't seen it as much as Disney Dreams, but we've well into the double digits. The cast makes a lot of difference, since this show gives them some lattitude for improvisation. Normally Hades steals the show, but in this particular cast (which we also saw on our three-peat), that honor goes hands-down to Pain and Panic.

The Who Wants to be a Mouseketeer game show is usually the other evening show, but on this trip it was bumped to the afternoon, and Treasure Planet was shown in the Walt Disney Theater instead. I've never liked this show much anyway (nor have I ever liked the real Millionaire show, which moves much too slow--but I do have to shamefully admit that I'm addicted to the version at Disney MGM Studio). Normally, we skip it in favor of spa appointments. But if you like Millionaire and/or Disney trivia, or if you want a shot at winning stateroom credits and maybe a free cruise, stop by the show. Just be aware that if you have little ones, it probably won't hold their attention for long.

As for other entertainment, we of course attended the 70's party. Who can pass up an opportunity to see luminaries such as Gloria Gaynor, John Travolta, and the Village People? Actually, on this trip we had a new Gloria experience. As the show was going on, a woman in the smoking section, which was off to our right, was yelling, "I AM GLORIA!" and dancing seductively among the tables, wrapping her scarf around total strangers. Towards the end of the show, I noticed that she was gone. Hubby thinks she might have been asked to leave--goodness knows she didn't need to be doing any more drinking. I don't know if it was the holiday or what, but on this particular trip we saw a lot more drunken behavior than usual. One thing I love about Disney is that it is typically a more low-key family atmosphere, but on this trip I sometimes wondering if I had stumbled onto the Carnival Fantasy by mistake! Fortunately, that is very uncommon on the Wonder.

We missed the 80's party, since it is on the last night and we had scheduled a very early pickup after the cruise so we could head out to Discover Cove. I was really sorry to skip it, as we did it on our three-peat and it was a blast. It is somewhat different from the 70's party because it features some dancing performances by the main stage actors. The theme is Time Warp, as in the Rocky Horror Picture Show. I am looking forward to attending when we cruise on the Magic in January.

We also did Match Your Mate, a Newlywed Game-type show that was especially funny this time because the contestants showed absolutely no restraint! I heard some words that I have never heard before on a Disney stage. By the time it was over, my face was sore from laughing.

Castaway Cay
The highlight of our Disney cruises is always Castaway Cay, and this time was no exception. For the 27th time we had good weather, although a bit cool. We disembarked later than usual, waiting for it to warm up a bit. We headed all the way to the end of the family beach, towards the bike rental and the Heads Up bar, and even though we were quite late, there were still some great spots left. Even though we don't have children, we don't always go to the adult beach. Instead, we head to that far corner of the family beach, which is so nice and quite but still close to the action. I got into the water, which was almost deserted, but as I worked my way down the beach the crowd thickened until you couldn't fit another body in. Then I turned around and headed back to my quiet corner of the world.

As I was swimming around, an inner tube floated over and stalled up against the rocks. No one claimed it for nearly an hour. It seemed to be a big waste to me, so I retrieved it and brought it to the crowded part of the beach, where I have it to some tubeless kids. I'm not sure how it got away from its original owner, or why no one ever came after it, but it was put to good use.

Hubby did some bike riding while I swam, and then we lunched at Cookies. For the first time ever we found the famous Lobster Burgers! I have often read about them on the internet, but I have never seen them at lunch. They were delicious! I also love the frozen yogurt. I was sorry to see that they got rid of peach, but it has been replaced by cookie dough so I can't complain too much.

I didn't get around to kayaking or snorkeling because we headed back to the ship a little early to catch the matinee of Disney Dreams. We probably would have stayed ashore longer, but the temperature was cooling off again. Oh well, we are hearty Midwesterners, so it would take some really cold weather to keep us out of the water!

A Happy Change
On our three-peat, one of the only things I didn't like was the pushiness of the photographers. After being on so many Disney cruises, we have countless photos (including one that I especially love of the ship pulled in forward at Castaway Cay, since it now usually backs in). I don't mind being asked if I want a photo once, or even twice, but some of them didn't want to take no for an answer last time. Happily, this was not the case at all on this trip. If you declined after being asked once, they accepted it and moved on. Of course, for first time cruisers, I recommend that you DO take all the photo opportunities, since you are under no obligation to purchase them and it's fun to see how they come out. It's just that it's all "old hat" for us now. While I was on the beach at Castaway Cay, there were photographers taking pictures of people in the water, on innertubes, etc. Those would be some really neat shots.

The Crew
I am continually amazed at how the crew members manage to keep a cheerful attitude despite being subject to some really awful behavior. Hubby witnessed a poor crew member being verbally abused by an intoxicated man who demanded to know why more of the bars weren't open late (it was almost 2 a.m.). Barb's answer: "Because of people like you, you moron." But of course the crew member handled the situation very politely.

We also saw a woman lay into someone because her family had to "sit on the cold floor for 45 minutes" because the ship didn't start boarding till noon. Barb's response: "What, are you too stupid to get up and sit in a chair?" Again, the crew member handled the situation politely and professionally despite the guest's rudeness. Considering that this probably happens to them all the time, I think they deserve big kudos for their patience and professionalism.

Of course, the cruise was an opportunity for hubby and I to see many crew friends, including Tanya, Karen, Rick, P.J., Rita, Marianne, Brent, and countless former servers and others who amaze me by recognizing us on every cruise. The DCL team really went out of their way this time to make this an especially memorable and magical cruise.

Homeward Bound
This cruise really flew by, especially since our last experience on the Wonder was three cruises back to back. I suppose that #29 in February will be even worse, since #28 is a 7-day Western on the Magic. Those long cruises can really spoil you!

On the last morning, we skipped breakfast because we were heading out to Discovery Cove as a way to kill time until our 8:50 p.m. flight. We had arranged our pickup with Happy Limo for 8 a.m., but for some reason hubby thought that it was for 8:30 so he dawdled with the morning packing while I slept like a rock. Finally I woke up and realized what time it was, and we really hustled! Thank goodness there was no line to disembark or to go through Customs (as always, Disney has Royal Caribbean beat by 200 percent when it comes to ease of disembarkation). We made up for lost time and reached the pickup area just as our towncar pulled in.

We made it to Discovery Cove by opening time. DC is worthy of its own trip report, so I won't go into detail here. But suffice it to say that the only negative was beyond their control--the 60ish temperature! Thankfully, wet suits are included in your admission price or we wouldn't have been able to go into the water.

We had Happy Limo pick us up for our return trip to the airport, and they showed up in an absolutely gorgeous brand-new stretch limo! The other people waiting for rides gaped at us as thought we were celebrities. The ride to the airport was short, but definitely luxurious.

Even though the Sunday after Thanksgiving is supposed to be the busiest travel day of the year, when we arrived at Orlando International around 6 p.m. the crowd was almost non-existent. Since we were plenty early, I asked for exit rows when we checked in our luggage. Being a compulsive person, I asked the agent when he handed us our boarding passes, "These are exit rows, right?" and he said, "Yes." Unfortunately, he lied!

Hubby and I did some shopping before going through security, as the line was minimal and my cats love the little catnip "Florida Souvenir" pillows from Bow Wow Meow. We also had time for dinner at Chili's before heading. As we were waiting to go through Security, hubby happened to glance at our boarding passes and noticed that they did not say "exit row." When we got to the gate, this was confirmed, and of course it was too late to change. Normally this wouldn't be a problem, but our seats didn't recline because they were right in front of the lavatory, and the people in front of us spent the whole flight in a totally reclined position. We were the window and middle seats, and the quarters were so close that hubby couldn't even get into his under-seat bag and I couldn't use my tray table. I thought that the flight attendants might make them put the seat backs up during the drink service, but no such luck--I asked, and they just shrugged and said, "Those seats are always a problem." Hubby asked the man in front of him to at least move up for a minute so he could get into his bag, since we couldn't recline ourselves in order to get more room, but the guy just groaned something incomprehensible.

Since I had nowhere to put a drink and reading or sleeping were well nigh impossible, I spent the flight finding new ways to kick and poke the seat in front of me (which wasn't hard, since my knees were pressed up against the seat). Normally I'm not a vindictive flyer, but I thought it was really rude that they wouldn't at least temporarily allow us to use our tray table or get to our bags. I was really hoping that the woman in front of me would say something, but of course she never did. In my imagination, the conversation went something like this: Her: "Hey, quit poking me and kicking my seat!" Me: "Well, since you're so close that just the act of breathing causes me to bump your seat, and since I can't recline, the only solution for you is to move up to a little or continue getting jolted!"

Since the flight was full, there was no chance of moving. Thankfully, it is only a bit over two hours and I'm not a claustrophobic (although I was getting close!). Soon we were home, and I had learned a very important lesson: ALWAYS check and recheck your boarding pass!

This time. the luggage was extremely slow in arriving. Oh well, I can live with that one vice since ATA has a good safety record and has almost always been on-time for us (and those cushy new 757s are nice too!). I was glad that we were parked in the garage so we didn't have to mess with a shuttle bus. We just hopped in and headed back into reality. It was sad that cruise #27 was over, but we took comfort in knowing that #28 was only a little over a month away.

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