Saturday, June 12, 2004

Trip Report #29, February 2003 on the Wonder

Hubby and I embarked on Disney cruise #29 on 2/6/03. We sail the Wonder every February for our annual anniversary celebration at sea. People often ask if we ever get tired of sailing on the same ship so often (in 2003, we have a total of 8 Disney cruises booked, 6 of which are on the Wonder, plus 5 more so far for 2004). Actually, we like the familiarity, as the Wonder is almost like a vacation "home" to us. And every cruise is different in some way, no matter how many times we sail. We always try something new or take note of some changes. Even in 29 trips, we still haven't managed to try all of the activities offered on board.
In this trip report, in addition to the usual information, I will focus on some of the experiences that made this trip unique. We made a special effort to try new things this time around, and we had several new life experiences.

Winging Our Way South
Chicago is a bleak place in February. Even though Florida has been having an especially cold winter, the word "cold" is a relative term when you're coming from a place with single-digit temperatures. After a few weeks of that, even the 40s feel downright balmy.

We headed for Midway Airport Wednesday night after work (gotta save those vacation days!) for an 8:20 p.m. flight to Orlando on ATA. We like to fly in the night before our cruise to give ourselves a cushion against delays. Normally we get a hotel near the Orlando airport for under $30 via Priceline (we specify a three-star, and it's usually the Marriott). On this trip, we weren't so lucky. Something must have been going on to draw in the crowds, because I was able to get rooms in March and April for our usual rate, but nothing would come up for February. I kept raising my bid, and eventually we got the Holiday Inn Select for $43. That was quite a bit more than I like to pay, but at least they had a 24 hour shuttle (our plane was scheduled to land at midnight) and were in a convenient location.

Midway was very crowded; everyone must be trying to escape the deep freeze. For three night cruises, we park in their garage. Even though it's expensive, it's still cheaper than taking a limo, and it's very convenient to the ticket counters. I know of two off-site, non-airport-affiliated lots just in case, but the garage still had plenty of room. We parked by the south elevators (the best choice for ATA) and headed into the airport. Since you go right from your car to the building, it eliminates the need to drag along a coat.

We had electronic tickets, but since there was no line at the counter, we headed over there because we wanted exit rows and the ticket agents usually know which ones are best. Some of the rows that are designated as exits on ATA's 757-300s and 737-800s don't have any extra legroom, so we wanted to avoid those. We were in time to get one of the exit rows over the wings. It wasn't as spacious as the ones by the door, but it still offered enough room to stretch out and fly in comfort.

We had made great time driving (we take Pulaski rather than Cicero), and the security line was almost non-existent, so we had plenty of time to have some dinner and relax in the food court. The remodeled Midway offers some very tempting choices. Hubby had some sort of sandwich enveloped in nice, flaky dough from Pegasus on the Fly, while I opted for nachos from Lalo's, a Mexican restaurant. The only thing they could really use is a Wolfgang Puck's like O'Hare, as I love their squash soup and goat cheese pizzas. I also poked around in the airport bookstore and found a paperback called "Plane Insanity" that looked like it would make humorous in-flight reading.

Boarding started a bit late, but it went quickly, and soon we were on board and heading down the runway. I had planned to sleep, but once I started reading the book, I just couldn't put it down. It was hilarious! It's written by a male flight attendant who shares his most humorous experiences. His style is a lot like Dave Barry's, and it had me laughing out loud all the way to Orlando (a good thing, since we hit a patch of short but very frightening turbulence and I was glad to have something to distract me).

We touched down a bit early, and ATA was halfway fast with the luggage (unusual for them). Soon we had all of our bags, and I called the Holiday Inn Select from one of the courtesy phones. They told me that the shuttle would be there in 10 to 15 minutes. We headed down to the pick-up area and had a really nice surprise. The shuttle was there already! Another passenger from the same plane had called a few minutes before us. The person I spoke with at the hotel thought that the shuttle would be on its way back with the other party already and that it would have to return for us. We had really lucked out, and we were in our hotel room by 12:35. It was a connecting room, which is always the case with Priceline, but thus far we've never had any noise problems. Soon we were headed off to dreamland for a good night's sleep before our busy weekend.

On the Road to Port Canaveral
The next morning, Happy Limo was scheduled to pick us up at 9:30 a.m. We were running a little early, and so were they. It was perfect timing, as the towncar pulled up shortly after we reached the hotel lobby. With our early start, we were at the port a bit before 10:30, even with a grocery stop. We went through security, which didn't have any line yet, and headed into the terminal building to check in and get a key to our home for the next three days.

We were greeted warmly by the port crew, who we've come to know over the course of so many trips. Being greeted by friendly, smiling, familiar faces is always a great way to kick off our trip. Hubby bought his traditional latte at R. E. Fresh's Gulf Stream Coffee, while I opted for a cup of steamed milk. Then we settled down to watch the crowd go from non-existent to unbelievably huge. Boarding started around 12:15, which seems to be the average time (although it can be as late as 1 p.m., and once it was as early as noon). We knew that time had now kicked into overdrive as we crossed the Wonder's threshold into the magical vacation world.

The Embarkation Buffet
As usual, I'll kick off the on-board portion of my trip report with dining, since eating is the first thing we do after embarkation. Our last cruise was on the Magic, and I was blown away by their fantastic Caribbean-style embarkation spread. I didn't think the Wonder could compete, but I was pleasantly surprised by the addition of some new salads (new life experience #1). I am a salad lover, and my plate was full before I even made it to the hot entrees. Hubby groused a little because two of his favorites (tortellini salad and one with artichokes) were gone, but he soon cheered up as he reached his favorite jumbo peel-and-eat shrimp. The only thing I really missed from the Magic was the cold mango soup. It was a favorite of mine when it used to be on the old Parrot Cay menu, and it's still as delicious as ever when I get to have it (all too seldom) on our Magic cruises.

The second new thing I noticed was that several Disney characters stopped in Parrot Cay to pay a visit to the tables and the people waiting in line. It was so much fun to watch the eyes of the little ones grow as large as saucers as they ran to hug their Disney friends. The line to the buffet can get long at times, so having the characters pay a visit was a great way to distract the kids (and the adults too).

Dinner: Triton's
The embarkation buffet is just the start of a long parade of culinary experiences. We started our dining rotation in Tritons, and we were at a table for four, seated with a retired couple. They had booked the cruise at the last minute, and had previously sailed on the Carnival Pride. They told us they spend their winters in Florida, so it's easy for them to hop over to Port Canaveral for a cruise.

I had the fried camembert cheese with marinara and the vichyssoise (cold potato soup) for my appetizers. I was torn on my dinner selection, but our server talked me into trying the beef tenderloin, promising to bring me something different if it wasn't as delicious as he said it would be. Indeed, it was wonderful...tender and perfectly seasoned with pepper. Both I and one of our tablemates, who had the same meal, agreed that the mashed potatoes were divine. On this trip, for some reason I was in an ice cream mood, so I ordered chocolate ice cream with whipped cream and lots of cherries, which was served just the way I like it. I adore cherries and was very pleased with the generous portion.

I had been impressed on the Magic because our assistant server got my iced tea just right. I can't stand the regular stuff, which comes out of a tap rather than being fresh brewed, so I order hot tea with lots of ice to make my own. They have excellent flavors, such as black currant and mint, that are delicious over ice. On the Magic, there was a pot brewed and waiting for me each night, which was so much more convenient than brewing it myself, as it's almost impossible to pour it over the ice from a teacup without spilling it. Our assistant server on this trip got the concept immediately and took care of the preparation.

Our head server was our old friend P. J. from Australia. It was great as always to see him again...he is a real character. Rita and Paul, two other head servers that we've come to know, were also on board, although on different dining rotations. We did get a chance to say "hello" when we saw them at lunchtime, and we also saw several of our former servers. Their memories never cease to amaze me, as they always recognize us immediately.

Dinner: Palo
Our second night, we skipped Animators Palate for Palo. I don't recommend this for people who have never seen the show, but hubby and I have seen it so many times that we can close our eyes and visualize it in our dreams. We used to skip Parrot Cay for Palo, but ever since they changed the menu, it has gone from my least favorite to a no-miss experience.

People often ask me which night is best to dine at Palo. That's a hard question to answer, because so many individual preferences come into play. Besides not missing Animators, it also depends on whether you want a certain view (for example, many people like to dine with the lights of Nassau in the background) or whether that doesn't matter (on the other two nights, you will be at sea). And remember, you can still do Animators night with a little planning and "double dipping." For example, if you have the early dinner seating and want to experience your regular restaurant, go there for appetizers and coffee. Make your Palo reservation for as late as possible that night and have your regular meal there. This strategy is popular with people who have young children. They eat with the kids early, then check them into programming and enjoy a quiet adults-only meal later.

For us, Animators night worked well, and Palo was as fabulous as always. It's on a par with the best WDW restaurants. Although all of the food on board is usually good, Palo stands above the rest because it has its own galley where everything is cooked to order. My only complaint is that there are too many good things to try and not enough stomach space to fit them all. They automatically bring an antipasto plate and bread with three dipping sauces (olive, red pepper, and pesto). We also ordered a pizza, and our server brought us a portobello mushroom too, just because it's so good. He definitely knew our tastes, as that is one of my favorites.

By the time we were done with all that, we could easily have thrown in the towel and been plenty full. But that was only for starters. There was still a main course to be eaten and then topped off with the famous chocolate souffles. We are big fans of the filet mignon with gorgonzola cheese. It is not on the menu, but it seems to be a regular offering. But this time hubby was swayed by the veal marsala special. I've had the marsala at Palo before, so I knew how good it would be. My favorite marasala of all time is served at a chain restaurant called Buca di Beppo. It has a very sweet sauce and lots of mushrooms. The Palo version is quite different, with a somewhat creamy sauce, but excellent in its own way. I highly recommend it. I topped off my meal with a souffle, but hubby has been a rebel lately and has been ordering the cheesecake. Our server also brought us a cream dessert to try, which hubby ranked as excellent, but nothing will ever sway me away from the souffle.

Dinner: Parrot Cay
Our last night was Parrot Cay, and the new menu was as good as I'd remembered (it was brand-new on our previous Wonder cruise and hadn't started on the Magic yet when we sailed in January, although both ships have it now). The cold avocado soup and the crab newberg are my favorite appetizers, and the prime rib wins me over for dinner, although the ribs are a good choice too. For dessert, there was a serenade and a delicious decorated cake in honor of our anniversary.

In addition to excellent food, Parrot Cay also offers some festivities that will remind you of Chef Mickey's. While dining, you are entertained by music, and then there is a grand finale in which the dining room personnel parade around and even do the limbo while everyone waves their napkins frantically. It's a lot of Disney-style dining fun.

Other Meals
We don't always eat breakfast on the ship, but we are addicted to the eggs benedict at Triton's, so we had that for breakfast on Nassau morning. Hubby usually isn't a big fan of eggs, but that dish is an exception...he loves it. Since we didn't disembark in Nassau, we headed to the American buffet at Beach Blanket Buffet for a late lunch. I was especially interested in checking out the offerings because the American buffet on the Magic had been quite different that the Wonder. This is usually my favorite onboard buffet, but the Magic had fewer offerings (things like my favorite cornbread and the mashed potatoes were missing...if I remember correctly, they didn't have the carved turkey either). I wanted to see if the Wonder had changed too. Thankfully, it hadn't, and all of my favorites were there. The only bad thing about that is that my eyes are inevitably bigger than my stomach. When eating at the American Buffet, don't forget that, in addition to the main buffet line, there are offerings at other stations such as wraps, salads, and tacos.

We had another new life experience that can be classified under "dining." Because we did not disembark at Castaway Cay (more on that later), we had lunch on board the ship at Parrot Cay. I was very interested in seeing how the offerings would compare to Cookies and to the barbecue on the adult beach. I thought they might skimp, since most people are off the ship, but I was wrong! It was a lavish affair with some unique offerings that you cannot get on the island. For example, hubby was thrilled that there was plenty of peel and eat shrimp, while I opted for the made to order pasta. Some island offerings, such as the lobster burgers, are not served on board, but the other dishes more than make up for it. One other difference is that instead of soft serve yogurt, they serve hand-scooped Hagen Daas.

In addition to the restaurant, Disney offers a wide variety of other options to keep hunger at bay. One of my favorites is the chicken fingers at Pluto's Dog House, which also offers fare such as hot dogs and hamburgers.. Try them with the honey mustard for a major taste treat. Since we always choose late dining to give ourselves more time to do things during the day, I tend to get hungry around 5:30 or 6. A quick bite from Pluto's tides me over until the main meal.

Our Home on the Ocean
I know that some people brag about having a home on the ocean. Well, we do too, although in a much different way. Maybe it's not on the beach, but it's still plenty close to the water. Actually, we have several homes, as we can typically be found either in a secret porthole room (Category 10 rooms that are sold as inside but that have obstructed view portholes) or in 5650, a Category 6 stateroom as far aft on Deck 5 as you can get. On this trip, we were in 5650, which was perfect as it's my favorite room on the ship.

While the secret porthole rooms are a great bargain, a verandah is so lovely to have. The portholes let in sunlight, but nothing beats relaxing out on your verandah late at night or first thing in the morning. Sipping a cup of coffee while watching the sun rise or watching the ship pull into port is such a neat experience. It's also the perfect spot to relax for a few minutes in the middle of an active day.

5650 has a solid metal verandah, rather than the typical plexiglass (this trait is shared by all of the far aft verandahs). This doesn't disturb me at all, as I love to stand at the rail and gaze over at the water. I know that many people like being on the higher decks, but I prefer to be as close to the water as possible, and deck 5 is the lowest deck with verandah staterooms. The verandah is a bit larger than the norm due to the curve of the ship, and I really enjoy its recessed and private shape. Because there is only one neighboring stateroom and no rooms across the hall, 5650 has virtually no hallway traffic/noise, which is a major plus for me. Sometimes you can hear the engine drone while the ship is at sea, but I find that very soothing. The noise will kick up while you are docking, when the side thrusters are being used, but that serves as a wake-up call for me. Deck 5 aft is the perfect spot for a relaxing trip.

Of course, the secret porthole rooms are not a bad option either. I consider them the best bargain because of the free view, and they are near the forward elevators, which is a very convenient location. But because they are at the head of a dead end hall, and are in the vicinity of staterooms that sleep four people as opposed to three, there tends to be a lot more foot traffic and hallway sound. Of course, the frequency and intensity will depend on your neighbors. You can have a noisy (or quiet) stateroom anywhere on the's the luck of the draw. If you have boisterous kids yourself, this might not matter to you. Since we are a childless couple, we tend to be quiet ourselves. We like to be in peaceful surroundings if we want to sleep late in the morning after a long night on Route 66. But in order to afford to cruise as much as we do and still have some sunlight, the advantages of the secret porthole rooms definitely outweigh any disadvantages. If you are interested, book them early as they go very fast. We tried to get one for the 2003/2004 New Years cruise, but they were already booked even though that cruise is almost a year away.

I did notice one change to the stateroom service which was also in effect on the Magic. In the past, the stateroom host or hostess filled the ice bucket every day. Now, you will find a form in your room asking whether you want ice and, if so, whether you ant it once or twice a day. Just mark it appropriately and the host or hostess will take care of it.

When people find out that deck 5 is my favorite, they are often amazed because it is also home to the kids clubs and we don't have children. They typically ask, "Isn't it really noisy on that deck with all those kids?" The answer is a resounding, "No!" The deck's layout ensures that the kids' areas aren't anywhere near the staterooms. You could probably go a whole cruise without even realizing that they are there. The only time I ever notice the kids is if they happen to be on their way somewhere when I am heading for the elevator or stairs. I just love watching the kid transport process and the ingenious methods used by the counselors to keep them all together and in line. It never fails to put a smile on my face.

Skipping Castaway Cay (gasp!) for a New Life Experience
I'll jump a bit ahead before describing the other activities on this cruise so I can report on our biggest new life experience. Of all the new things we noticed and did, nothing was as radical as our decision to stay aboard and not disembark at Castaway Cay. We've always discussed doing that so we could research the onboard activities for our website, but we've never been able to bring ourselves to actually follow through. In 29 cruises, we've been blessed with uncanny luck. We've never missed a docking, and the weather has always been decent, so we've always been drawn off the ship by our love for this tropical paradise.

This time, there was a juicy carrot dangling before our noses to keep us on board. On Castaway Cay day, the adult pool was closed for repairs, so the crew pool, which is located in the "king of the world" area of the ship (all the way forward) was open to adults. Since we've explored all of the public areas of the ship very thoroughly in the course of all of our cruises, we're always hungry to check out something new, particularly a backstage area that is normally off-limits. Although it really pained me, I committed to staying on board with the idea that visiting and swimming in a new place would make it worthwhile (or at least less painful), and I forced hubby to suffer along with me.

The adult pool was scheduled to open at 10 a.m., but when we arrived it wasn't quite ready. We hung out for a bit, then got in around 10:30. The water was cold, and I was surprised to discover that it was fresh water rather than salt. Although Disney's guest pools are fresh water, I had heard that the crew pool was not. A crew member explained that it used to be salt but that it was changed for maintenance reasons. There are no whirlpools in the crew area, just the swimming pool.

When hopping in, I quickly discovered that although the numbers painted on the deck said that the pool is four feet deep, it was quite a bit more. Hubby is almost six feet tall, and the water was over his head. We alternated between treading water and hanging on to the sides. The cold water was soon offset by piping hot water being pumped in. I'm not exaggerating the heat...if your foot was in front of the incoming stream, it would literally burn! The hot water blended with the cold to make a nice, comfy swimming temperature. Of course, swimming is a relative term because the pool is very small. You could probably cross it in two or three strokes, so it's much more suited to leisurely hanging out.

We had the pool completely to ourselves, so we hung out there for a couple of hours before heading off to lunch. Although there were lots of clouds, I was surprised to discover later that my face was rosy with a bit of sunburn. You have to watch that sneaky tropical sun, especially when you're a ghostly paleface like me.

In addition to lunch, we also rode the Segway people transporer, which was partially a new experience. We've ridden it on Castaway Cay before, but this time the rides were being offered in the atrium. It's $15 for 10 minutes, but the time can be split between two people. Hubby and I usually split it, but this time he was greedy and wanted the whole 10 minutes to himself so I took a whole 10 minutes too. I don't think the Segway will ever become a serious form of transportation (contrary to the publicity materials, you CAN lose your balance and fall off and it CAN hurt a pedestrian if it hits them), but it sure is fun! If you want to try it, you have to be age 16 or up. Rides are sometimes offered on the sports deck, too, so check the navigator for specifics on your cruise.

It took a lot of will power not to weaken and head out to the island, but somehow hubby and I managed to keep our promise. I stood on our verandah with binoculars and jealously watched the snorkelers and kayakers. But although I would have liked to be out there with them, I have to say that if you're not a beach person, you definitely won't be bored if you remain on board the ship. In addition to the excellent lunch spread and the other activities we mentioned, you can also see a movie or visit the spa or fitness room. Usually there is also a matinee of "Disney Dreams" at 3:15 that is very uncrowded.

Just before 5, we returned to the crew pool area to watch the sail away from a different spot. You can't really see a lot as there are high railings, and Leonardo di Caprio was nowhere in sight on the bow, but we enjoyed the uniqueness. As we watched the island recede in the distance and sipped our drinks from the crew bar, we marvelled that even after 29 cruises, we had done something totally new and different.

Shows and Activities
People are always surprised to discover that Disney, a company famed for children's entertainment, offers so much for the "big kids" to do, too. Our favorite adult activity is 70's Night, held in Wavebands. It's typically on the first night of the cruise. I like that because things are too hectic on the last night, and on Friday we usually like to get to bed a little early to rest up for an early morning start on Castaway Cay. On the first night, we can party into the wee hours of the morning and then sleep in on Nassau day.

There's lots of dancing to 70's music, which is always a blast, but my favorite part is the special guest appearances by Gloria Gaynor and John Travolta (well, more like multiple Glorias and Johns). And this is capped by a hilarious rendition of "YMCA" with a live appearance by the Village People. This is one event that we rarely miss. We can almost always be found at one of the front-row tables on the side of the room opposite the bar. I like to sit as far as possible from the smoking section, as the ventilation is typically not too good and the whole club can get rather smoky. The cruise staff is so enthusiastic, and they do a great job of getting everyone up and dancing and having a good time. Our friend Sasha from cruise staff was on board for this trip, so that made it especially fun. He was born for his job!

We liked 80's night when we saw it on the Magic and on the four-day Wonder, but this time we were a little disappointed because the main stage dancers didn't perform. Usually, in addition to the guests dancing, the main stage theater cast does some choreographed dance numbers. Hubby's theory is that they don't do it on the three-night cruises because the 80's party is on the last night and the show cast has to do the "Disney Dreams" matinee in addition to the regular performances, plus the good-bye appearance in the atrium. All of that is probably enough to kep them busy without the dance routines, too.

If that is the case, I would probably skip the 80's party in favor of packing. If you've never seen it before, I recommend that you check it out. You'll enjoy seeing the cruise staff in their 80's garb and watching videos on the big screen as you dance, and there are trivia questions that can win you a free drink. The Battle of the Bands is also a riot. But hubby and I have seen it multiple times, so doesn't hurt us to miss it. I'm glad it's on the last night because if I have to miss one of the theme nights, it would definitely be this one rather than the 70's party.

We missed "Match Your Mate" because we had a late dinner reservation at Palo, but if you can make it, I highly recommend it. It's an adaptation of the "Newlywed Game," and depending on the contestants, it can be make you laugh until your face is sore. I was sad to see that they no longer have "Wonderquest," which was a sort of scavenger hunt. I can understand why, as the number of attendees was usually pretty low (it was at the same time as the deck party), but I still miss it. Oh well, I don't think that it would ever be able to measure up to the "Magicquest" that we attended on our January cruise. Check out my previous trip report for specifics. It was definitely a PG-rated (for brief nudity) experience. Actually, I don't think any "Match Your Mate" has ever been as wild as the version we saw on the Magic either, but the Wonder has been pretty close.

We saw "Hercules" on the first night. We haven't seen it 30 times like "Disney Dreams," but the number has to be pretty close. It's silly but fun and it always makes us laugh. We saw this cast when they were brand-new to the Wonder back in November, so we were anxious to see how they had changed over time. It's always interesting to see how the performers have grown into their roles. The Pain and Panic in this cast really steal the show.

On the second night, we skipped the show in favor of hot tubbing, but we were pleased to see that "Who Wants to be a Mouseketeer?" has been replaced with a variety act. "Mouseketeer" has been moved to the afternoon, which I think is a very wise decision. Because it is a game show, it makes a much better midday activity than an evening mainstage show.

Of course, there is no way we'd miss "Disney Dreams," so we saw it for the 30th time and I can honestly say we enjoyed it just as much as the first (and the second, and third, and so on). Of course, we are Disney fanatics, but I find it hard to imagine that anyone could watch that show and not be at least a little misty-eyed at the end. My favorite parts are the Aladdin and Little Mermaid sequences, but best of all is the scene towards the end with Tinkerbell and the ship. I won't spoil it by describing it, but it's really a magical moment.

The only annoying thing was that videotaping of the shows has gotten out of hand, and flash photography is getting there. When we first started cruising, the flashes went off continually throughout the show. Then, Disney started making an announcement that flash photography and videotaping are prohibited. That helped a little, although there will always be a few (or sometimes many) inconsiderate people. For a while, the rules were enforced during the show, which was really nice. It's so distracting to sit near someone who constantly blinds you with their camera or irritates you with their bright video screen. But now enforcement seems to be slacking off again. We were sitting in the back row, and the camcorder screens were visible everywhere. Mercifully, there weren't too many "flashers," but one person had a camera with the strobing red-eye feature. The only thing more annoying than a flash is a flash that is preceding by bright, flickering lights.

It's a shame that common courtesy so often goes out the window, especially in large crowds. While I'd like to see enforcement of the rules, it really shouldn't be Disney's responsibility to have to treat people like unruly children. Instead, it would be so nice if everyone could just respect the rules out of courtesy for others.

The Spa
Hubby and I work hard to pay for all our vacations, so we use that as an excuse to play hard, too. Part of the reward for our hard work is indulging ourselves at the spa. Typically, on a three-day cruise we book one treatment each day, plus we slip in a surial bath (the couples mud bath experience that is described in more detail elsewhere on my website). Typically, I get a massage/reflexology one day, a seaweed wrap/massage on another, and an Absolute Face & Body treatment (massage and facial) as the third.

Hubby used to be a traditionalist and go with three massages, but when we did three trips back to back on the Wonder last fall, I finally talked him into trying a seaweed wrap and he's been hooked ever since. He has even been threatening to do three seaweed wraps in a row! I can understand that, as it is such a relaxing and detoxifying experience. But I think I like the Absolute Face and Body a bit more because you have to get up to shower midway through the seaweed wrap, but in the AF&B you can pretty much lay there in a coma, other than having to roll over onto your back for the facial.

On this trip, hubby insisted that he didn't want a massage on the last day, even though I was having one. Since he leaves booking the spa appointments to me, I asked him if he was absolutely, positively sure. He swore that he was, so I didn't book anything for him on Saturday even though I didn't believe him. Sure enough, after our treatments on the first day, he proudly announced to me that he had added a massage on Saturday night. He was incredibly lucky that an appointment was still open! I knew that I should have gone with my instinct and just booked it right away. I won't fall for his false protestations next time. We skipped the surial bath this time because hubby recently had Lasik to correct his nearsightedness, and it was a bit too early for his eyes to be exposed to that much steam.

We discovered something new on this cruise. On the Magic, we were told that the hydrotherapy bath had been removed, and we learned that it is gone on the Wonder as well. The room where it used to be located is now a regular treatment room, which should help with the availability of massage appointments.

I am very lazy on vacation, but hubby was ambitious and actually worked out in the fitness area. I didn't even bother to peek in there, but he reported that he likes the Magic's better because the Wonder does not have eliptical machines (I am a treadmill person myself). Even if you don't work out, you should at least walk over to this area because it contains windows that overlook the bridge. Look down and you'll get a peek at all of the sophisticated gadgetry that navigates the ship.

The Castaway Club
As the name of my website indicates, hubby and I consider ourselves to be Platinum members of the Castaway Club (Disney's club for returning cruisers). Therefore, we make it a point never to miss the Castaway Club party, which is a nice opportunity for snacks, drinks, and meeting some of the ship's officers, including the captain. The party is usually held at 5:15 p.m. on Saturday on the three-day cruise, right after the sailaway from Castaway Cay. It's a convenient time, but I wish they would change the time of the foot massage clinic in the spa as that starts at 5 p.m. and there is no way we can make both (the Castaway Club party takes precedence).

On our last few cruises, the number of returning cruisers was so large that the party was held in multiple clubs on Beat Street or Route 66. On this trip, the number was low enough so that everyone could fit into Wavebands. We grabbed some snacks at the buffet, and servers brought around drinks (both alcohol and non-alcohol options are available). The food items typically include appetizers such as mini quiches, pizza, mozerella sticks, and chicken wings. Many people ask if it's okay to bring children to the party, and it definitely is. The whole family is welcome at this event.

When the number of guests is very large, the captain typically makes a "formal" speech. But on this trip, Captain John was able to make it around the room to greet almost everyone personally, so it was a very relaxed and informal occasion.

In addition to the party, returning cruisers also get a gift in their stateroom (currently pins and a really nice beach towel). At the port, there is a special Castaway Club check-in line (as you are facing the counter, it is almost all the way to the far right). But sometimes that line is more crowded than the others, so be sure to check before heading over.

There are usually some benefits to booking your next cruise while on the ship, such as a stateroom credit. I had just gotten my holiday schedule for 2004, so we decided to check out some dates for next year. It's especially handy if you want to check on the availability of certain staterooms, such as the secret porthole rooms, as the on-board agent can look up that information up immediately.

The times for onboard booking are listed in the navigator...we headed over the first night, but there were a lot of people waiting so we didn't stick around. If there are more than a couple of people ahead of you, you might be in for a long wait. People tend to ask a lot of questions and to request prices for multiple dates and categories, which can take a lot of time. I ended up sneaking out of the matinee of "Disney Dreams" to get to the booking table a little before it opened. Colleen, the onboard agent, arrived a little early too, so that worked out perfectly. I was the first one there, and I went to the evening "Disney Dreams" show to catch what I had missed at the matinee (even though I've seen it 30 times, I never get tired of it and I hate to miss my favorite parts).

We booked most of our cruises for 2004 (yes, I am a compulsive planner!), although there will probably be a couple more dates added later. But we like to lock in the secret porthole rooms and the early booking savings. Our travel agent, Dreams Unlimited, monitors the prices, so if there is a special and they go down, our cost will automatically be adjusted. Colleen was able to transfer the reservations directly to Dreams, which is very convenient. Keep in mind that if you book a cruise on board, you will have to make your deposit at the time of booking.

Shore Excursions
Since we have cruised to Nassau 30 times (we've been there on Royal Caribbean in addition to Disney), we rarely bother to disembark anymore. We used to go to the public beach on Paradise Island, but it lost its appeal to us after a bad (and dangerous) experience. Hubby and I rented jet skis from one of the many independent vendors wandering around in the beach area. We had done that before with no problem, but this time hubby was on a bum jet ski that conked out in the middle of the ocean. He was all alone, as I like to stay close to shore while he likes to go way out. There was no one around to help him, but thank goodness the jet ski finally washed up on the shore...a LONG way from the beach. He had a very long walk back, and when he got to the beach, he made the mistake of telling the vendor where he'd left the jet ski before demanding his money back. Of course, the guy took off and we never saw him again. That was enough to sour hubby on visiting the beach. Now we just wait for Castaway Cay, which is a true paradise. Once in a while, we disembark in Nassau to shop, but that's pretty rare. Instead, we spend our time watching a movie, hanging out in the whirlpool, or indulging in spa treatments on board.

But on this trip, I noticed two new Nassau shore excursions that might tempt me off the ship one of these days. The first is to Ardastra Gardens, home of the "marching flamingos." I love birds, so this is something that I've always wanted to see, but I've never gotten around to checking out the logistics (cab fares, admission, etc.). I'm a big fan of doing shore excursions on your own, if possible, but sometimes it makes more sense to do them through Disney. I think that's true in this case, as I prefer not to hassle with transportation. We have five more Wonder trips planned this year, so I'm sure we'll do it on one of them.

The second shore excursion combines the Blue Lagoon Beach Day with Stingray City. Disney has long offered a Blue Lagoon excursion, with or without a dolphin encounter, but the Stingray City option is new. We did the stingray excursion at Grand Cayman on the Western itinerary...while this is different (I've heard that you snorkel in a relatively small area), I would still strongly recommend it if you've never experienced a close encounter with rays. They are amazingly gentle and love to eat out of your hands.

Although we stayed on board, we still managed to have a new Nassau experience. On the message boards, I had noticed a posting that said a lot of prizes are given away at the shopping talk (an onboard presentation that describes the stores you'll find at the port and the types of merchandise they sell, such as jewelry or t-shirts). This was something we hadn't done before, so we decided to go. It is held around 2 p.m. on embarkation day, which is usually our whirlpool time, but since we had committed to new experiences, we headed over to the Buena Vista Theater to check it out.

Indeed, there were a number of giveaway. I won a dolphin key chain from Del Sol, the store that sells items that change color in the sunlight. My little dolphin goes from clear to pink, and I had a lot of fun watching him color-shift out on our verandah. Hubby won some trinkets from one of the souvenir shops. The items ranged from key chains, wood bead necklaces, and little toys to a t-shirt and hat. If you miss the talk, it will be repeated on your stateroom television. There is also a shore excursion talk, and that one is repeated on t.v. too.

Adults Only
One of my only criticisms of our Magic cruise in January was that enforcement of the adult areas didn't seem to be as strict as on the Wonder. On this trip, I was pleased to see that the Wonder crew still makes sure that the age limitation in the adults areas is respected. I don't know about the adult beach, since we didn't disembark, but I didn't see any children make an attempt to crash the adult pool or whirlpools. However, I did see a very rude adult smoking a cigar in one of the whirlpools and flicking his ashes into the drain...a kid would have probably had more manners. In Wavebands, people with kids tried to enter the adult activities (e.g. 70's Party, 80's Party) a couple of times, but they were politely turned away by the cruise staff. I've noticed that many people seem to think that a baby doesn't count as a "child," but those who wheeled their strollers into Wavebands for the adult parties were set straight.

Of course, since it's a Disney ship, you will definitely see lots of kids around. I frequent and some other Disney Cruise Line message board sites, and I've read some real horror stories about misbehaving kids and teens. But in 29 cruises, I must say that, with a few rare exceptions, we have never run into any instances of gross misbehavior. I've seen a lot more bad behavior by adults than I've ever seen by kids.

Sure, the population of children is high on a Disney cruise, but that's to be expected. And sure, as the hour gets late, the kids will get a little cranky. The teens are on vacation, so you will probably see them hanging out around the ship in the wee hours of the night. I don't see any of that as out of the ordinary, and it certainly doesn't have a negative impact on my cruise. Perhaps we've been very lucky...I'm sure there are rude people with unruly kids, but I believe that they are in the minority. And on Disney, unlike Royal Caribbean, if we get tired of being around the youngsters, there are places where we can go to escape. I believe that one of Disney's strongest points is that it offers an excellent experience for every age group.

Why Disney?
People often ask hubby and I why we continue to sail Disney when there are so many other cruise lines. We have tried several of Royal Caribbean's ships, but although they are nice, we really think that Disney has the best product. As I mentioned above, Disney offers adults-only areas, as well as special activities for everyone in every age group. I think they do an ideal job of meeting the needs of the entire family. Their ships are gorgeous, their staterooms are largeby cruise ship standards, the food is good, the service is attentive, and the quality shines forth in every aspect of their business. From the shore side operations to the port to the ships, there is a real commitment to quality by the entire cast and crew. Disney tweaks their product based on guest feedback, and it really shows.

Before we started cruising, we went to Disney World several times a year. We did other vacation trips, too, but Disney World was always our favorite. People would ask us why, and we would cite the quality. The Disney ships are the same way. I had always wanted to try a cruise, but the only way I could get hubby to try it was when Disney launched their cruise line because he trusted the Disney brand. Obviously he wasn't disappointed, since I been able to drag him on 29 Disney cruises since #1 on Labor Day weekend of 1998.

Disney has not only maintained their quality, but they've also managed to continuously improved. I wouldn't think it's possible after so many trips, but they continue to exceed our expectations. I like to try new things, but I can also easily get into a rut when I find a good product. As long as Disney Cruise Line maintains their stellar level of quality, they will continue to be our floating vacation home.

Disembarkation Nightmare
Unfortunately, Sunday morning came all too soon. Normally, disembarking a Disney ship is as simple as walking off when you are ready. Unlike Royal Caribbean, where you cool your heels (sometimes literally for hours) until your luggage tag color is called, Disney lets you choose your own time. Hurry off or take your time. Skip breakfast or enjoy a leisurely meal. It's all up to you. Typically, if there's any line at all, it's very short and moves quickly.

Unfortunately, while we were on this trip, the terrorism alert level was raised to Orange, which meant tightened security measures. We had arranged an 8:30 a.m. pickup by Happy Limo, figuring that we'd sleep in a bit, skip breakfast, and head off the ship. But on this morning, we were greeted by the horror of a line that stretched all the way from the door back down the hall to the Promenade Lounge. Yikes! And to make matters worse, it was moving at a snail's pace. We had been told that we would need our drivers licenses and birth certificates (passports work too), but apparently we were the only two people on the ship who were paying attention. The reason for the slowness was that the majority of people seemed oblivious and thus ended up searching their luggage for the required documents once they stepped off the ship and were confronted by customs officials.

As the line inched along and the hands on my watch inched ahead, I began to worry. I toyed with the idea of calling Happy Limo to let them know we were running late, but then I tried to reassure myself: "It won't be that bad." Eventually we made it off the ship and into the crowd of confused people searching for their ID. We had ours ready, but of course we were stuck behind the clueless crowd. This part was even worse than the onboard line. I realized that I should have called, but once you step off the ship, using your cell phone is forbidden. If you find yourself stuck in disembarkation hell, be sure to call your ride BEFORE stepping off.

We had kept our luggage rather than leaving it out for delivery to the terminal, and that turned out to be a wise decision. While everyone else was looking for their bags, we were able to beat them to the Customs line and escape ahead of the pack. We trotted off to the parking lot and into the blessed relief of the towncar, where our driver was waiting patiently. It was so nice to be away from that slow-moving, confused crowd!

Back to Winter
Our trip to MCO was quick and non-eventful, so we made it in plenty of time for our noonish flight. There was nobody waiting to check in at ATA, so we went to the counter and got exit rows once again. This time, we were in a 737-800, which was a new aircraft for me. We went to the restrooms before heading to our gate, and on our way we saw the check-in line for Southwest. It was unbelievable!! It stretched so far back from their counter that it took me a while to figure out which airline everybody was waiting for. We've noticed the same thing in the past, so I think that would scare me off travelling Southwest to Orlando. I know a lot of people praise them for their low prices, but I've never been able to find a good Southwest fare from Chicago, ATA always beats them, and I prefer assigned seats anyway.

The security line was minimal, even with the orange terrorist threat alert, so we were soon on the shuttle train heading to the gates. When we have some time before boarding, we like to sit in the chairs near the shuttles rather than right at the gate. It's a lot quieter and less crowded. We had about an hour, so we set up camp there and amused ourselves with handheld computer games and books.

The flight was pretty crowded (they put on a lot of stand-by people), but it took off on time and soon we were winged out way back to winter. I wanted to take a nap, but hubby was reading my "Plane Insanity" book, and he kept me awake because he was literally shaking with laughter. Finally we touched down at Midway...the barren winter landscape was so depressing in comparison to the Florida greenery we had left a mere two and a half hours earlier.

We headed down to baggage claim, which is typically the worst part of the journey. Claiming luggage in Orlando can be slow, but claiming it in Chicago goes beyond slowness to enter an entirely new realm of horror. ATA has two luggage belts, and they didn't tell us which one our luggage would be on, so hubby staked out a spot at one while I stood at the other. It turned out that hubby was the one who had chosen wisely, so I rejoined him (along with several other people who were using the same strategy). A few "teaser" bags came out, but that was all. For literally half an hour, the belt teasingly rotated while no new bags appeared. Meanwhile, another flight was added to the tote board at our claim area, so all the disgruntled Orlando passengers were joined by a planeload of arrivals from Texas. I was wondering if the Texas folks were in danger of bodily harm...their bags started arriving before any more Orlando luggage showed up, and those of us who had been waiting to long couldn't help but be jealous.

Eventually our bags showed up, but it had taken almost a full hour from the time we'd arrived at the baggage area (that doesn't include walking time and a restroom break). We're used to this part of the trip taking a long time, but this was definitely the longest by far. Oh well, the important thing is that we had made it home safely, and late luggage is certainly preferable to lost bags.

We headed to the parking garage where Canyonero was patiently waiting. Hubby loaded in the bags while I warmed up the car, and soon we were on our way. It's always sad returning home from vacation (although I miss the cats and bird and am always glad to see them again). But at least we could take comfort in the fact that it would only be one more month before we'd return to the Wonder for trip number 30. And although we enjoyed trying something different, we will definitely NOT be skipping Castaway Cay on the next trip!

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