Saturday, June 12, 2004

Trip Report #28, January 2003 Western Caribbean Cruise on the Magic

Hubby and I embarked on Disney cruise #28 on January 4th to the Western Caribbean. We had been on the second sailing of the new Western itinerary in May, and we loved it so much that we re-booked immediately. We had to sail in January because that's when we got a fresh allotment of vacation days.

Even though we consider the Wonder our second home, this trip on the Magic was truly a fantastic voyage. We were amazed at the number of people who remembered us from May, and we met some old friends from the Magic, too. And of course we made some new friends that we hope to see again when we sail in May (yes, we loved it so much that we cancelled one of our upcoming Wonder cruises and booked Memorial Day week).

Here are the full details of our sailing:

Every trip starts with one small step. For us, it was the step into "Canyonero" (my Aztek) for the ride to O'Hare Airport. We typically fly ATA out of Midway, but this time American had come in a bit cheaper (of course, ATA ran a sale two days after we bought our tickets).

I had to work on Friday, so hubby took the day off to pack. As soon as I arrived home, we jumped into the car and were racing off down 294. With the new baggage screening procedures, we wanted to make sure that we got there in plenty of time.

Typically, when we fly out of O'Hare, we park at the Avistar off-site lot. We always get a discount coupon by searching via for the airport discount parking sites. But Avistar can be crowded, which results in waiting a bit for the shuttle, and their rates have gone up, even with the discount. In my Google search, I also came up with a place called Park-N-Jet, located just down the street from Avistar, right next door to the Candlewood Suites hotel. With a coupon, they were slightly cheaper than Avistar.

We decided to take a look at Park-N-Jet, and if we didn't like it, we could always continue on to Avistar. We pulled up to the gate and noticed that it was a rather small lot. Their website had said that valet service was available, but we didn't see any valet. The person in the booth at the gate directed us to park in the far corner, so we drove off and found a spot where she had indicated. Hubby was glad there was no valet, as he didn't like the idea of leaving our keys for a week. Just as we hopped out of the car, the shuttle van pulled up behind us to take our luggage. Within minutes, we were on our way to O'Hare. The quarters were a bit tight in the lot, but I've seen worse. All in all, it didn't look bad. My main objective was getting to the airport quickly, and I definitely can't complain about the Park-N-Jet shuttle service.

This was our first flight since Jan. 1, when the new baggage screening procedures went into effect, and we had no idea what to expect. Hubby used to use luggage locks, but he switched to cable ties because he had heard that's better if your bags are chosen for a search.

Our first experience with these procedures was quite painless. The screening machines for American were right by the check-in area, and since there was no line, we were able to watch our bags go through. They were not searched, so we proceeded to the check-in counter and managed to grab an exit row. Then it was through Security (where hubby's backpack was searched due to his digital camera battery) and off to the food court for a quick bite to eat before boarding our flight. We had been prepared for delays, but the whole thing was quite painless. I imagine it would have been a lot worse if the airport had been crowded.

Our plane was an MD-80, and the flight was very sparsely populated. Our row was full, since we had a three-across exit row, but the entire back of the plane was empty. When we were airborne and I headed to the restroom, I noticed that lots of people had moved back there and were sleeping stretched across the empty rows.

The flight was pretty smooth, and for the first time ever we were able to spot Disney World when we were over Orlando. It looked so cool from the air, with all the lights and colors. We were running early, but an extremely long wait for our luggage cancelled out the time we had gained.

Once we finally had our bags, I used one of the hotel phones in the baggage area to call the MCO Marriott. We had gotten a room there for $28 via Priceline. This was our first time staying there, but I trust the Marriott name (and with Priceline, there's not much of a choice anyway). Imagine my panic when I gave our name and the clerk had no record of our reservation, even after spelling it three times!

But I am always well prepared, so I whipped out the Priceline ressie sheet and gave all the pertinent numbers. In the past, the hotels we've stayed at have always been able to find it by name, but fortunately Marriott found it by the numbers. They informed us that a shuttle would be on the way, so we headed down to the pickup area.

The shuttle took about 15 minutes, and in that time, quite a few people had gathered to wait along with us. The Marriott was definitely a popular destination! We all piled in while the driver loaded the luggage, and just as he was ready to pull away, a woman came up and told him, "I have a party of seven and a lot of luggage, and they said to wait at Space 19. Is that correct?" (We, along with all the others, had been sent to wait in the 20's.) The driver told her he would radio the hotel and that they should move down to the space where we had been. He radioed once we had driven off, and from what I could gather, there was no other shuttle so she would have to wait until he returned. What a mess! I was certainly glad that we had been told the right spot to wait. I'm sure a party of seven would fill the shuttle all by themselves, not to mention any other people who would most likely arrive in the meantime.

The hotel was definitely bustling with activity. Priceline allows you to specify a non-smoking room, but at the check-in counter I was informed that none were available ("You belong in the smoky dregs, lowly Priceline cheapskate!"). With a $29 ressie I was in no position to argue, but I was definitely worried. On our last trip, we stayed in a supposedly non-smoking room at the LaQuinta which was adjoined with a smoking room that apparently vented directly into our bathroom. Even the towels reeked of smoke, and I ended up with a sinus infection after suffering through an allery attack all night.

Fortunately, when we got to our room at the Marriott, there was only a very light odor of smoking, and none of the linens or towels smelled. It was fine for a one-night crash pad. But I'm wondering if they will pull the same thing in March, when we have another Priceline reservation. We always end up in an adjoining room through Priceline, but disregarding our non-smoking request was new. Oh well, I'll find out in a couple of months.

Shortly after we arrived, the phone rang. It turned out to be Happy Limo, with whom we had booked our trip to the port, as always. We had booked a towncar, but they had called to ask if we'd like to be upgraded to a super-stretch limo if we agreed to ride with another couple. Apparently they were in the hotel next door and had booked a towncar at the same pickup time. We love chatting with other people, and the idea of arriving like a celebrity sounded good, so we readily agreed.

The next morning, our ride was right on time. The other couple was already inside, so we piled in for a very happy limo ride. There were cold sodas, and the limo has a stereo system and DVD player, but we spent the whole time chatting about the upcoming cruise. It's amazing how quickly good conversation makes the time pass. Before we knew it, we were at Port Canaveral.

I always consider that our vacation has started once we reach the port. The baggage screening takes place outside, so once I go through that process and step inside, I always feel like the Disney magic has begun. We arrived very early (around 10:30), so there was no line. As we went through the screening, hubby's backpack was selected to be hand searched and all electronic devices had to be turned on. Then it was onto the escalator to head upstairs for check-in.

The counters were already open, and there were a handful of early birds. We headed to the Castaway Club check-in line, where there was only one other party in front of us. I was glad that we arrived early because the lines tend to be longer for the Magic than the Wonder as it gets later. With the Wonder, all of the people on the land-sea package check in at their hotels, but with the Magic, every guest must check in at the port.

As always, it was great to see Tanya, Art, and our other friends who work at the terminal. We've taken so many Disney cruises that we've gotten to know them quite well. Hubby has gotten in the habit of buying an expresso at the coffee bar, while I enjoy a cup of steamed milk to fortify me while waiting to board. For some reason, even though we had arrived so early, the time seemed to fly right by. Before I knew it, it was time to board.

Typically, boarding starts around 12:15, although it was a little later this time (in all our cruises, I've seen it start as early as noon and as late as one, but 12:15 is definitely the average). To embark, you have your picture taken and then head down the gangway and onto the ship, where a member of the cruise staff announces your family name. It was a bit strange to get on a ship that looks almost identical to the Magic but not to see any familiar faces. Little did we know that we'd find several old friends on board, and that we'd also be making some new ones.

Since the embarkation buffet is the first order of business when you board, I'll move this report into a review of the buffets. Rather than going in strict chronological order, I like to describe and review things be category.

As much as I love the Wonder, I have to admit that the Magic has a superior embarkation spread. It seems to have a Caribbean theme, with yummy items like Jamaican beef patties (like a beef pocket), and I almost jumped for joy when I noticed they had my favorite cold mango soup. That is an item from the original (circa 1998) Parrot Cay menu, and it is not offered on the Wonder. I love exotic soups, and that is one of the best. The cold salads were also excellent, especially the green bean salad. Of course, all hubby cared about was the fact that they had peel and eat shrimp.

The only odd thing was that, although they had cold veggies (but no lettuce), there was no salad dressing. At first I thought I had missed it, but when I double checked I was told there was none. Strange, and also disappointing, as the Disney ships have the best Ranch dressing.

During the cruise, we also lunched at the American Buffet and the Seafood Buffet. I don't think the American one measured up to the Wonder's spread. There seemed to be less items (for example, no turkey, cranberries, or to-die-for corn bread). I did enjoy the baked potatoes with various toppings, and I was pleased to see the blueberry cobbler for dessert. It is a delicious treat, although it was served in individual dishes and there was no vanilla sauce (which I love to slather all over it when it is served in a self-serve pan).

I am neutral on the seafood buffet, but hubby pronounced it excellent. That is because he loves sushi, and they had plenty to satisfy his love of raw fish. I cringed as I watched him pile drive through raw tuna, but he pronounced it delicious.

After the embarkation feast, the next order of business is to head to your stateroom. On this cruise, we were in my favorite room, 5650, located on deck 5 and just about as far aft as you can possibly get. Unlike its counterpart on the Wonder, the Magic's 5650 does not have my favorite picture hanging over the bed (it has some bars of music from "Candle on the Water" instead of a picture of the ship). But other than that, it shares all the features that make it an ideal home away from home.

The far-flung location means that hallway traffic and noise is almost completely absent, and the verandah is a little larger than the standard (it is also solid metal instead of the usual plexiglass). I don't mind the metal verandahs, and I like the cozy shape. You only have a neighbor on one side, which also contributes to the peace and quiet. The hum of the engines, which you can hear while sailing, lulls me right into dreamland. It is also the perfect location for sleeping late after being out partying into the wee hours on Beat Street.

I did notice one remnant of a previous rude occupant. There were cigarette burns on the surface of the desk and the bathroom sink. There is no excuse for that, since smoking is allowed out on the verandah. I find it amazing that someone was too lazy to walk a few steps and that they would cause damage. Also, oddly enough, the center drawer in the desk was missing. These were the only little idiosyncrasies we noticed. One good thing was that the water pressure seemed to be much stronger than on the Wonder. But other than some very minor differences, staterooms on the two ships are nearly identical.

Our stateroom host, Maurice, put an interesting twist on the usual towel animals that are left in the cabins each night. Like a painter who prefers watercolors instead of oil, his preferred medium was our spare blanket instead of towels. I thought we had seen everything after 28 cruises, but every night there was a new surprise.

Ice used to be delivered automatically twice a day, but now there is a little card on which you indicate when you want it, and how often (morning and/or night). We requested it at night only, since our cooling box worked pretty good and kept our bottled water plenty cold. Some of the cooling boxes work much better than others. It's just the luck of the draw.

Interestingly, at the roundtable discussion with the ship's officers, someone asked why Disney installed cooling boxes instead of real refrigerators. The answer was that fridges give off heat. I learn new trivia on every cruise!

It is particularly nice to have a verandah on the 7-day cruise because you have an opportunity to relax outside with a cup of coffee or to spend some time just gazing out at the ocean. Hubby got some gorgeous sunset photos. For me, the neatest thing was watching the waves when we were going through some rough seas and noticing that when they crested a certain way, a rainbow appeared in the spray above them. It was beautiful! I also saw a large fish (small dolphin) leap gleefully into the air before it disappeared back into the azure depths.

A cruise can be very hectic because there are so many options for fun things to do. That's why I think it's so important to schedule some "down time." If you don't have a verandah, go to the "secret" one on Deck 7 aft or spend some time in the Rainforest (shower, sauna, and steam rooms in the spa).

The cruise doesn't really begin until after the safety drill (although hubby and I always bring our swimsuits in our day bag and manage to slip in some whirlpool time beforehand). This is a necessary evil to familiarize you with how to put on your life vest and to show you where you would meet in case of emergency. There are various assembly stations inside and outside on Deck 4. I prefer the outside stations because I hate being inside in an area packed wall-to-wall with humanity. Unfortunately, the assembly station for my 5650 happens to be in Animators Palate, so I have to make the sacrifice if I want to be in my favorite spot.

The whole process goes by amazingly quickly. Assembly leaders take attendance by stateroom number, and then there is a demonstration of how to put on the lifejackets and a P.A. announcement explaining emergency procedures. Since the ship feels like a floating resort to me, I find it hard to believe that something that large and luxurious could ever actually sink. But I'm sure the people on the Titanic felt the same way, and we all know what happened to them. The possibility is remote, but it's important to know what to do just in case.

I always notice a lot of people taking photos of their family members looking resplendent in their lovely orange vests. Out of 28 cruises, this is one photo opportunity that hubby and I keep forgetting to take. Hopefully I'll remember on our Wonder trip in Feb.

Soon enough, the drill is over, and you follow the cattle herd out of your station and back to your stateroom. Now the fun can officially begin!

Once the ressie rush for Palo and the spa is over and you've made a fashion statement in your lovely orange vest at the safety drill, the first big activity of the evening is the Welcome Variety Show. That is the kick-off to a week of entertainment that includes Hercules, Morty the Magician, Who Wants to Be a Mouseketeer, the Farewell Variety Show, and of course the best of all, Disney Dreams.

We always skip Mouseketeer on both the Magic and the Wonder. The slim chance of being chosen as a contestant (done randomly, by seat number) is not worth the tedium since this show tends to move very slow, just like its television namesake. This time we skipped Morty, too. We had seen it on our May cruise, and although I enjoyed the magic tricks (the half-woman is hilarious), I wasn't too fond of the story line that seemed like an afterthought smooshed in around the tricks. I suppose that's because this show is an incarnation of C'est Magique, and earlier show that consisted of classical music, art, and magic, with no real plot. Personally, I preferred Magique, but it was probably a bit esoteric for kids.

We went to the Welcome Aboard Variety Show, which features singing, dancing, and a couple of entertainers. The first was Gary Delena, who does comedy and singing. We thoroughly enjoyed his show, and we also went to see his adults-only act in the Rockin' Bar D. The second one was Michael Harrison, but we left because we've seen his act twice before and it was identical this time. With all the returning cruisers, I would like to see it changed a little. We didn't see his cabaret show but heard from others that it is very funny. He uses an adult guy as his "dummy" (in the Variety Show, he uses a kid). We missed the Farewell Show, but only because we wanted to get a head start on packing.

Hubby always insists that we see Hercules. On our early cruises, he loved it and I hated it, but over time it has really grown on me. Although I miss the days when Hades did a long, corny stand-up routine, I still enjoy the silliness. I also like a lot of the music from the movie, and it's all there in the play, too. This show offers some opportunities for the players to ad-lib, so I love to see how each cast changes it a bit and adds their own style.

We never, ever miss Disney Dreams, which we have now seen 29 times. We caught the matinee (be warned, the early show on the Magic is attended by the little ones from the kids club. It doesn't bother us, but if you are kid-phobic, you might want to go to a later showing). We had a very pleasant surprise, as our favorite Peter Pan from the Wonder is in this cast. He clowns around and does all sorts of funny little antics, such as juggling Anne Marie's toys. If you only see one show, make sure that it's Disney Dreams.

This is a hard area to review, since new menus were implemented on the cruise right after we sailed, starting with Parrot Cay. The Wonder got the new menus first, so we had already experienced the new offerings at Parrot Cay, Animators Palate and Tritons (Lumiere's will be the same). Parrot Cay's menu is totally changed, and it's definitely for the better. The changes are not as drastic in the other restaurants. There is just a little tweaking here and there. Vegetarians will be pleased to know that the meatless options have been expanded. Even though my hubby loves meat and potatoes, he worked his way through all the old veggie offerings and is now excited about trying all the new ones.

I have seen the new Master Chef's menu, since it is offered on the 4-day Wonder, but I don't know how much Small World, Captain's Gala, and Mexicali/Tropicali will change. The new offerings will give us something to look forward to when we sail again in May.

We were seated with two other families, both of whom frequent the DIS message boards at We were quite pleased, as we love being at a large table. Hubby and I eat dinner together every day, so we really like to meet new people at meals when we cruise.

Our head server was John, and our serving team was Adrian and Joyce. One thing I like about the 7-day cruise is that you get to know your servers, especially when compared to the 3-day cruise (where you only see them for two dinners if you go to Palo). This was one of the best dining teams we've ever had. They handled our special requests cheerfully and perfectly and made sure that our dinners were perfect.

They also won big points with me because they had a pitcher of fresh brewed black currant or mint iced tea waiting for me every night (I told Joyce my two favorite flavors, so she alternated each day). I hate the regular iced tea, which is "tap" rather than fresh brewed. Typically, when I explain that I need hot tea and ice to make my own, our servers are typically confused. But Joyce got the concept right away, and I loved the fact that she made it for me because I usually end up spilling some when trying to pour the hot tea over ice.

In addition to the rotation dining dinners, on the 7-day cruise you also get to attend a character breakfast hosted by Chip and Dale. It always reminds me of Chef Mickey's Restaurant at the Contemporary, with singing, dancing, and napkin waving. There are also lots of photo opportunities with the characters. They travel around the dining room, pausing at each table to post. It is rather hurried, so there won't be a lot of interaction, but you should be able to take some great pictures. The ship photographers are on hand, and you can use your own camera, too. The character breakfast is always held in Parrot Cay. You will receive tickets the night before, at dinner.

No Disney cruise would be complete without at least one visit to Palo. On the 7-day, there are opportunities for multiple visits, as Palo offers high tea and a champagne brunch in addition to dinner. We managed to fit in all three, and they were as fantastic as we've come to expect.

We had champagne brunch on Key West day (it is also offered on the sea days). This is hubby's favorite, and it is a never-ending parade of tempting food items. The first part is a buffet with appetizers, cheese, sweets, breads, cold crab claws, and other delicacies. You can easily make a meal of the offering, but you have to show some restraint because the buffet is only the beginning. There are also hot, made-to-order breakfast and lunch items like eggs benedict, omelets, tilapia, beef, and pasta. Your server will take your order for these items. The brunch also includes a glass of champagne, and other specialty drinks are available for purchase.

There is a $10 service charge, which is well worth it. You may also want to tip your server an additional amount, which you can do when they present you with a slip to sign for the cover charge.

The brunch is good, but my all-time favorite is high tea. This elegant event is only offered on sea days, and the seating is EXTREMELY limited, so if you want to do it, make your reservations as early, early, early on embarkation day. If you are not one of the first people in line, you will most likely miss out.

If you are fortunate enough to get a reservation, you are in for a real treat. You are given your choice of a dazzling array of teas. My favorites are the cinnamon and chamomile varieties. They are brewed loose-leaf, and you pour them into your cup through a strainer. The chamomile always gives me a flashback to the tea my Hungarian grandmother used to make me.

Also included are dainty and delicious finger sandwiches, eclairs, parfait, and the all-time best scones that I have ever tasted, which are served with two kinds of jam and fresh cream. Those scones are a taste of Heaven on earth.

As a special treat, Wendy from "Peter Pan" stopped by to say hi to the big kids on her way to the Tea With Wendy event for the youngsters. Of course, we grabbed the opportunity to take a photo with her.

There is no cover charge for High Tea, so since you do not get a payment slip to sign, I bring phone cards to pass out to the servers.

We had dinner at Palo on Captain's Gala night, so in addition to the usual offerings, there was a lobster tail special. That's what both hubby and I chose, and they were delicious. They were served with a delightful sauce, and if I remember correctly, there was a side of risotto. They were as good as anything I've had at the best Disney World restaurants.

In addition to the main course, Palo's appetizers and desserts are wonders in their own right. There is abundant antipasto and bread with three delectable dips (although I prefer the pesto on the Wonder to the garlic mayonnaise on the Magic--the other two dips are the same on both ships). It is interesting to note the differences between the two ships, no doubt because the chefs have different styles. Hubby said that the portobello mushroom appetizer on the Magic is seasoned differently (and just as delicious), while I noticed that the fish soup is a cream soup on the Wonder but not on the Magic (but again, just as delicious on both ships). But one thing that is the same is the chocolate souffle, which is the only dessert I ever order at Palo. It is a Disney Cruise Line classic, and it will satisfy the sweet tooth of any chocoholic. No visit to Palo is complete without it.

We received a warm welcome at Palo from Carita, Salvatorre, and Dalibor, all of whom we have met previously. It always amazes me how so many of the crew recognize us. They have incredible memories, especially since we only sail on the Magic once or twice a year. They made sure that we were well taken care of during all of our Palo experiences.

One of the things I love about Disney is that there is so much to do. There are educational talks, such as the Art of Entertaining, which covers topics ranging from napkin folding to preparing appetizers and desserts. There are chats with the captain and ship's officers, as well as a showing of "The Making of the Magic." Backstage offerings include a tour of the theater and a chat with the show cast.

Although we love the spa, we try to leave a lot of time open on sea days to fit in as many activities as possible. On this trip, our favorite was the chat with cast. It is a very informal gathering, where you sit around with them in Sessions and ask whatever questions come to mind. I love hearing about their life on the ship, how they got into acting, etc. Captain's Corner (the chat with the officers) is also fun, although in the course of so many cruises, I've noticed that people always tend to ask the same things. The only bad thing was that Bingo was scheduled immediately after this event, so people started crowding in early while it was still going on, which was quite distracting. It would have been nice for the event times to be more staggered.

On this trip, I learned a new tip: do NOT schedule Palo brunch for Key West day and then let your husband take "a short nap" before disembarking. The nap turned out to be pretty long, and we didn't disembark until 2 p.m. Unfortunately, that meant that we didn't have time to do both the Conch Train and Hemmingway's House. We chose the train, which offers a very nice 90-minute tour of the main points of interest in Key West.

Besides the train, my other "must-do" was to see the Cat Man and his Flying Housecats at sunset in Mallory Square. While awaiting the beginning of the festivities, hubby and I got homemade ice cream at the mall and also had some of the best guacamole I've ever tasted. It is sold at a booth in Mallory Square, where it is made fresh right before your eyes.

We found the Catman on the dock right below the bow of the ship. We got there just in time to get a good spot--by the time the performance started, the people were standing three to four bodies deep. As a cat owner, I was utterly amazed at the tricks performed by these felines. They jumped onto platforms on command, climbed ropes and ladders, walked across a rope, and even jumped through a ring of fire. I can't imagine how much patience training them must take. Cats typically cannot be forced into obedience. The Catman must know how to select the right ones. When I asked him, he said that the cats choose him, and I believe it! They were such sweet animals. We were able to pet them afterwards. They sit in their little crates with the doors open, soaking up all the admiration and attention. He asks for a dollar donation from the crowd, and he also sells t-shirts and videos.

The next scheduled port of call was Grand Cayman, and hubby and I had scheduled a 9 a.m. pickup for a beach horseback ride (booked on our own, not through Disney). We made sure that we were up bright and early so we could get on one of the first tender boats. Since ships are not allowed to dock at the island, everyone is tendered in. In the morning, you have to get a tender ticket, and it's first-come-first-served.

We started to get worried when we noticed that no land was in sight, even as time was ticking away. Then we heard the announcement: due to rough seas, none of the cruise ships were allowed to go to Grand Cayman that day. Instead, we would set sail immediately for Cozumel, where we would arrive around midnight, just in time for partying at Carlos and Charlie's. I was disappointed, as I love Grand Cayman, but even Disney can't control the weather or the waves. Oh well, it was a good excuse to book another Western cruise this year.

When a port of call is cancelled, Disney issues a new Navigator with some added onboard activities. We saved both copies for comparison, but the difference was not huge. They mainly added family events, games, and movies. We had no trouble finding things to do (mainly, hanging out in the Tropical Rainforest). Although I was looking forward to Grand Cayman, I enjoy sea days too. Some people were really complaining, but I can't see why a change of itinerary should ruin my cruise. When you go on a cruise, changes and cancellations are always a possibility. In 28 Disney cruises, this is the first time it has ever happened to us. Just maintain a flexible attitude and you'll still have a good time.

Although we heard that many people disembarked in Cozumel when we arrived late at night, hubby and I simply took a peek from our verandah and then snuggled down in our beds. We were scheduled for the Disney horseback riding excursion the next day at 11:15 a.m. It was a very hard choice, as we loved the Safari Jeep Tour, which we did last time, and we know how wonderful Xcaret is, since we did it when we sailed on RCCL's Voyager. But horseback riding won out, since we thought the weather might be chilly and since it would be a new experience.

Our excursion group met in Offbeat, but we had to wait half an hour before disembarking because another ship was docking. Once we got the all-clear, we headed down the dock walkway and over to the street, where our tour bus was parked. The stable was quite a good distance from the ship. We passed the entrance to Mr. Sancho's beach and also Chankanaab Park, another popular excursion destination. Eventually, after a ride that included a scenic passing of the ocean, we pulled up at Buena Vista Ranch (a nice Disney-esque name). We were split into two groups and were given an introduction on how to ride a horse. Then we were assigned to our mounts and we headed off on our adventure.

The ride lasts about 90 minutes and passes many ruins (many are re-creations, but some are authentic). At one point, the guide stops and gives the group some history of the Mayan people. Although the ride is billed as walking only, we were given an opportunity to canter. That was a real highlight--I have owned the same horse for over 20 years, so normally I am timid on unfamiliar horses because I am so used to my own, but my mount was so well trained that I felt totally secure on him. It felt so good to canter down the trail with the sun and wind on my face. I noticed that some of the horses stayed at a trot rather than breaking into a canter, but no equine will pull that trick on me! We cantered on two stretches, and the next day I was so saddle sore! But the experience was definitely worth it.

I don't know if every group is allowed to run the horses. In our group, there were no children, and most of the people had some riding experience (those who didn't were all adventurous souls who wanted to give it a try). After the ride, one of the wranglers brought out two trick horses. One of them was a stallion--normally, they are very high-strung, but this one was as gentle as a lamb. He even laid down like a dead horse while we all took turns sitting on his prone body for photos! The wrangler explained that he uses Natural Horsemanship methods, which I was very pleased to hear. I use those methods myself, and they are based on body language and communication with the horse rather than using force. The show was great, with the horses performing gorgeous moves like side passes and the Spanish Walk.

I was glad we had brought lots of small bills, as we tipped our guide and the man with the trick horses. A beer or soda is provided free as a part of the excursion, but some people also tipped the bar tenders too. In addition, there are various craft items and t-shirts for sale. One of the neatest items was a woman who paints plates and will customize them with your name and the date.

The excursion ran an hour later than the stated time, but I had learned my lesson on our last Western cruise and didn't schedule any spa appointments afterwards (even though my aching muscles would have appreciated it!). This is an excursion that I would definitely recommend. There are way too many good offerings in Cozumel. I don't know how we'll choose when we return in May.

We managed to keep up our streak and docked at Castaway Cay for the 28th time. The day was sunny, but this time there was quite a chill in the air! We disembarked and headed over to the adult beach, where we set up came in beach chairs and read for a while before trying to brave the water. It was cold, even for Chicago natives. Oh well, at least I can say that I went in, even though it was very brief. Most of our time on the island was spent sunning and reading.

When it was time for lunch, we noshed on lobster tails (an exclusive benefit of the 7-day cruise), and I had a generous helping of the delicious cookie dough yogurt. We ate at the adult beach rather than heading back to Cookies. The offerings are more limited, but very adequate.

One our bellies were full, we decided it was time for water activities. However, we were wimps and headed back to the ship to do our swimming in the heated pool and whirlpools. As time passed, the chill drove more and more people back to the ship. It was musing to watch the whirlpools go from sparsely populated to completely packed.

Due to the weather and waves, all the activities such as boat rentals, the banana boat, and parasailing were cancelled. It wasn't so bad for us, since we have been to Castaway Cay so many times, but I felt a bit sorry for the first-timers. Oh well, hopefully they still enjoyed their chance to visit this magical island. It's enjoyable even if the only thing you do is lay out on the beach with a good book.

No Disney cruise would be complete (at least not for hubby and I) without plenty of time spent in the spa. We wandered over at 1:45 on embarkation day, and amazingly there was no line. Surprisingly, it was practically deserted! On the 7-day, the most popular days for bookings seem to be the sea days. However, we scheduled some treatments on port days because we wanted to leave as much time as possible to do the scheduled activities (demonstrations, talks, etc.) while at sea.

We managed to fit in all of our favorite treatments: massage with reflexology, seaweed wraps, and the Aboslute Face & Body (a decadent combo massage and facial), as well as a surial bath (the famous couples experience that is described in PG-rated detail elsewhere on my website). Hubby never used to get a seaweed wrap, but I converted him when we did three cruises in a row on the Wonder back in autumn. Now he wants one on every trip! He was a bit confused, as the experience is a bit different on the Magic. On the Wonder, they typically only do one long wrap (in seaweed). On the Magic, they do two wraps. You are smothered in seaweed for half of the time, and then you shower off and are rewrapped without the seaweed in order to sweat out the toxins. I have had it done both ways, but I never thought to mention it to hubby, so he had a new experience. He loved it as much as ever. The treatment is combined with a massage, and being slathered in the warm seaweed and covered in a warm, comfy blanket always sends us to dreamland.

The massages and Absolute Face & Body were also as good as we've come to expect. The surial was great fun, although we had to jiggle the button a bit to get the steam to turn on (that happens on the Wonder, too). They had a wider selection of products to try in the surial chamber. I thought I had tried just about everything that Elemis makes, but I found some new ones this time. I love trying the various cleansers, toners, face masks, oils, etc.

In addition, we splurged for a weeklong pass to the Rainforest, which is $50 per person for unlimited use (later in the cruise, you can get a 3-day pass for $30, or else it is $15 per visit). The Tropical Rainforest is a collection of scented showers, saunas, and steam rooms. My favorite part is the heated tile loungers, where I love to hole up for an hour or two with a good book. I've also had many interesting conversations with people I've met there. Along with the adult whirlpools, it's a great place for socializing. But if you don't feel in a social mood, it's also the perfect spot to just relax. I ran into lots of Moms spending some time there before returning to the little ones. It's a perfect break from those responsibilities!

When we heard that we wouldn't be going to Grand Cayman, we called to schedule some additional appointments, but we were too late. Oh well, that was just more time we could spend in the Rainforest. It can get crowded on sea days, but if you skip one of the shows, wander down there at show time while everyone else is either in the theater or eating and you will most likely find it nearly deserted.

Once upon a time, when hubby and I first started sailing Disney, there was only a handful of returning cruisers. I remember the early days, when there was no Castaway Club party at all. Then came the early parties, which where held in Sessions or the Cadillac Lounge and sparsely attended by a few lone souls.

But over the four-plus years that Disney Cruise Line has been in existence, the number repeat cruisers has skyrocketed. Now, the parties typically take up multiple clubs, and sometimes the entire Beat Street (or Route 66) area. On this cruise, we heard that there were over 700 repeaters. The Castaway Club party was split between Rockin' Bar D and Off Beat in order to accommodate everyone.

We never miss the party, since we are the ultimate Castaway Club members. Also, it's a great opportunity to get photos of the offers and captain to add to my website. But on this day we were running late, and when we poked our heads in Rockin' Bar D, there wasn't a seat to be found. The captain was already there, but he hadn't been through Offbeat yet, so that's where we headed. Our commander was Captain Thord, and we didn't have a photo of him yet for our captains page, so we wanted to be sure to catch him.

Offbeat was just as crowded, but they had a decorative bench (a prop from the old improv comedy days) sitting near the door, so we took it over. It wasn't as comfortable as the regular chairs, but at least it was somewhere to sit! The amount of people was unbelievable. I think I've only seen a larger Castaway Club party once or twice.

We enjoyed a drink while waiting for the captain and the rest of the staff. Soon he arrived and we were able to get our photo. The staff circulates throughout the room, chatting with people and posing for photos. I noticed that they seem to make a special effort to make the youngsters feel welcome (some of the kids even bring their autograph books). When the crowd is this large, the captain also makes a little speech welcoming everyone and thanking them for their support of Disney Cruise Line. It's an enjoyable event, and I recommend that all returning cruisers try to attend.

In addition to the party, you also receive a stateroom gift (currently a beach towel, formerly a beach bag) and a set of pins. And Candace, the onboard rep., is available for booking future cruises during specified hours. Sometimes specials are offered for certain dates, and you will always get a stateroom credit. You can book your trip on board and then transfer it to your own travel agent. We typically book through Dreams Unlimited, so when we booked our May Western cruise on board, Candace was able to look up our records and transfer to DU immediately.

It was great to see Candace again. We know her from the Wonder, and it was so nice to see another familiar face on the Magic. She transfers between the two ships, so she will be returning to the Wonder just in time for our 30th cruise. I thought I would be more homesick for the Wonder, but between Candace and several others who we know, we received a warm welcome and felt right at home.

One of the only things I did not like on this cruise was the seemingly random enforcement of the rules. For example, they did not seem as strict about keeping kids out of the adult pool and whirlpools as they are on the Wonder. Also, Sessions is supposed to be an adult venue at all times. However, during the chat with the theater cast, there was a man in there with a toddler-aged boy. They were not there for the presentation. The kid was listening to music on headphones and "singing" along (more like wailing, since he wasn't using words). This was very distracting during the presentation, but they were never asked to leave.

Also, Captains Corner and the entertainment presentations are billed as adult activities, but there are always kids in attendance. I don't mind if they aren't creating a disturbance, but if people see that they can violate the rules in one venue, they are much more likely to try it in another one, like the pools or adult beach. I think Disney should either enforce the rules or just open the presentations up to everyone. My preference is that they be reserved for adults, as that is one big reason I prefer Disney over Royal Caribbean. On RCCL, they seem to think that adults will keep themselves amused in the casino, and therefore they don't need any scheduled activities. Yuck! If I want to gamble, I can do that at the casinos near my home. On Disney, there are so many fun and interesting things to do. No matter how many times we sail, I don't think we'll ever work our way through all of them.

On all our cruises, I watch the enforcement of the adult areas very closely. That is because I am a big promoter of Disney for childless adults, and one of the questions I am most frequently asked is, "Are there places where I really can get away from the kids?" When I answer a resounding, "Yes!", I want to be sure that I'm giving correct information because I consider Disney to be a better adult experience than RCCL any day. There will always be lots of kids on board, since it is a Disney ship (and it's actually a lot of fun to watch them). But when you need a break and some quiet time, it's great to be able to have that option.

Hubby didn't like the fact that right before 70's Night started, smokers took over the non-smoking area of Rockin' Bar D. They didn't let the absence of ashtrays deter them. They simply brought some over. Also, while waiting for one of the shows to start in the theater, I noticed other people eating food from Pluto's. I ran up to get some, but it was confiscated at the theater door, despite the fact that others were in there chowing down. The person who banned my food (an older man on cruise staff) was the same one who stopped hubby from taking photos during the shows last May, even though he wasn't using a flash. The reason given was that his camera has an LED screen, but that must be a random rule too because on this trip the LED screens glowed like fireflies during every show (there were lots of people videotaping, which is usually not allowed). I don't mind rules (actually, I like them), but I think that enforcement should be consistent.

Of course, a lot of this is out of Disney's control. If people would simply abide by the guidelines, like confining their smoking to appropriate areas and respecting the adult areas (after all, I don't shove their kids out of the way to go down the Mickey Slide or take over the computers in the kids clubs), the cruise would be a lot more pleasant for everyone.

But even though the erratic rules were annoying, it had only a very minor effect on our overall enjoyment of the cruise. The only other thing I hated was the fact that time slips into hyperdrive the minute we step on board. An hour passes like a minute, and a week passes like a day. Although I tried not think about how quickly our vacation was slipping away, by the time Friday rolled around I had to drag myself out of denial. As much as I love Castaway Cay, it is the subliminal signal that the next day is disembarkation.

There is a disembarkation talk that explains the entire process, but if you don't attend, that's not a problem. The same information will be repeated all evening on your stateroom television, so you don't have to waste the time attending in person.

If you are a first time cruiser, don't worry. Disney has the smoothest process that I've ever encountered. Unlike Royal Caribbean, which only allows you to leave only when your assigned color is called (which can take literally hours), Disney allows you to leave when you want to. You are assigned a time for a sit-down breakfast based on your dinnertime. However, if you prefer to leave early, simply skip breakfast or stop by Topsiders for a fast bite, and then leave. Otherwise, if you want, you can linger a bit longer.

Happy Limo was scheduled to pick us up at 8 a.m. (we wanted to leave pretty early, since we were staying overnight in the Orlando area and wanted to get an early start). We skipped our sitdown breakfast and simply walked off the ship as soon as we were ready. Sometimes there is a line, and sometimes you can leave with no delay. This time, there was a bit of a line because they were not letting people disembark (I'm not sure why--maybe the luggage area had gotten too crowded). But they let us off in about 10 minutes, and we quickly found our luggage (color coded by tags--it is picked up outside your stateroom the night before). The Customs line was minimal, and our towncar was waiting, so we were quickly off to Orlando.

Our flight back to the Chicago deep freeze was on Sunday evening. By the time we arrived at the airport, it was not at all crowded. American has a separate check-in counter for passengers going to Chicago and St. Louis that never seems to be very crowded, so check-in was a fast process. My only disappointment was that we were not able to get an exit row, even though we were very early. I suspect it was because our flight was packed with people whose flights had been cancelled due to terrible weather in Texas and Colorado. Many of them were being routed elsewhere via O'Hare, so our plane was packed to the gills.

The food court is before the security checkpoint, but since there were no lines, we got a leisurely bite to eat before going through security and heading to the gate. Even though we did not have an exit row, we were on the side of the plane with two-seat rows (it was an MD Super 80) so it wasn't too bad. Well, okay, maybe a bit bad for hubby because the seat in front of him was broken and was permanently in the fully reclined position! Thank goodness American has a little more legroom than most airlines.

The winds were high in Chicago, so the landing had me a little edgy because the plane was wobbling from side to side. I braced myself for a jolting landing, but lo and behold, it was a perfect touchdown. The pilot set it down as smooth as butter.

Amazingly, by the time we reached the baggage claim area, the bags for our flight were already being sent out. Ours showed up very quickly, so before we knew it, we were ready to call the parking lot shuttle and head down to the bus center.

The shuttle showed up quickly, and the driver asked us if we had valet parked, so I guess that Park-N-Jet must have a valet. Maybe they were just not around when we first arrived. Oh well, I didn't mind self-parking, and as I mentioned earlier, hubby prefers not to leave our keys somewhere for a week.

The shuttle van drove us right to our car, so we quickly piled in the luggage and headed home in Canyonero. It was hard to believe that just 48 hours earlier, we had been sailing the ocean on the Disney Magic, especially since we had returned home to single-digit temperatures--brrrr! It was hard to get back into the routine of the real world, but at least we took comfort in the fact that our next Disney cruise was only a month away.

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