Saturday, June 12, 2004

Trip Report #30, March 2003 on the Disney Wonder

Partners in Crime
I'll kick off with a quick introduction. Hubby and I are two childless adults (well, okay, our horses, cats, and bird are our "kids") who just started cruising in Sept. of 1998. We've managed to rack up 30 on Disney and 4 on Royal Caribbean in under 5 years (we have 5 more booked this year and 7 in 2004, so we'll be at over 40 next year). We are Disney fanatics who love the ocean, so Disney Cruise Line is perfect for us. I know it sounds crazy, but we also think that the Magic and Wonder are perfect for adults. Disney takes great care of all age groups, so even if you don't have any little ones, you will have a wonderful time.

The Adventure Begins
As usual, we flew out the night before to allow a cushion for weather or other delays. If we'd flown out one week earlier, snow might have been a problem. But Chicago weather changes with blinding speed, so we left for the cruise in the midst of a spring-like warm up.

Lately we have been taking ATA's 8:50 p.m. flight, which gets into Orlando at midnight. I hate the late arrival, but it saves a vacation day and we still get a better night's sleep than if we flew out on a 7 a.m. flight. I keep separate files for all our trips, and I didn't realize that I had booked at 5:30 flight until shortly before our trip date! I had been thinking of our April cruise, but for March, flights were hard to come by due to spring break so I'd had to grab something earlier than normal. I had already booked a 10:00 a.m. pick-up with Happy Limo, so we decided to keep that time. Hubby managed to get a last-minute vacation day, and since I'm on flextime, I worked long hours on Mon. and Tues. so I could leave early. Hubby packed while I worked, and as soon as I got home we did a quick house check (cats okay, stove off, windows locked, note for pet sitter, etc.) and were on the road by 2:30.

As usual, we took Cicero past Southwest Highway, then swung over to Pulaski to get to Midway. Pulaski is a bit out of our way, but the traffic is generally much lighter than Cicero once you get in the vicinity of Ford City. We made great time, and although the parking garage was more crowded than usual, we found a good spot on the fifth level, near the south elevators (very convenient to ATA's check in). Although the garage is expensive ($23 per day), for a three day cruise it costs less than a limo. The MDW remote lots are much cheaper, and I also know of a couple of independent lots, but I gladly pay extra to avoid dealing with the shuttle buses.

We checked in two hours before our flight, but the exit rows were gone already. Thankfully, we had booked a window and an aisle seat, so neither of us was stuck in the middle. I love booking on ATA's website because you can view the all the available seats before choosing. They also have a rewards program through which you can earn free companion or regular tickets. American and United used to have comparable fares, but lately ATA is the only reasonable choice out of Chicago (Spirit's times aren't convenient for us, and we have yet to spot a better fare on Southwest). Unlike Orlando, at Midway you watch as your checked baggage goes through the x-ray machine, so you will know immediately if it is searched. Ours wasn't, so we were quickly on our way.

There was no line at Security, and the food court was remarkable quiet, so we grabbed a table and had a little snack. I like waiting there or at an unused gate. It's much more peaceful than waiting at a crowded gate, and since we use the baggage check-in, we don't have to worry about checking in at the gate. About ten minutes before boarding time, we do a final potty break and head over to our plane.

The 737-800 was packed to the gills with humanity (another reason I like ATA is that they have all new 737-800s and 757-300s with nice touches like folding headrests and a video entertainment system). Hubby took the window and I took the aisle (sometimes we luck out with a row to ourselves, but this time some poor soul was stuck between us), and soon we were aloft.

We both bring CD players, books, and a variety of hand-held games to make the time pass quickly. Before we knew it, we were landing at MCO and on the way to collect our luggage. Our bags came fairly quickly, so I called the MCO Marriott from the baggage area phones (they have direct lines to local hotels and transportation).

As usual, we had gotten the Marriott via Priceline. We typically bid $28 for a three star property and end up at the Marriott, although once we got the Renaissance for that price. They told me the slot number where I should wait for the shuttle, so we headed downstairs to await our ride. It showed up in 15 minutes, which is longer than usual but not unreasonable. Hubby overheard the reason for the delay...a Delta flight crew had called for a Side B pickup and had then trooped over to wait at Side A (where we were). The shuttle was waiting at B, but finally gave up and drove to over A (and Who is on first, and What is on second). We piled in with the confused flight crew and were soon at our home for the night.

Usually when we book through Priceline we get a connecting room, but this time we did not. The connectors have never been noisy, but I still prefer a regular room so I was pleased. The Marriott is located within a few blocks of several restaurants, so we walked to Denny's for a snack before hitting the hay and drifting off into Disney dreams.

The next morning I was up early, but our pick-up wasn't till 10 so we took our time getting the luggage ready and watching television. We headed down to the lobby a little early, and the towncar pulled up a few minutes later. We managed to get on the road a bit before 10, so even with a quick grocery stop we were at the port before 11. There was no line at Security yet, so before we knew it we were heading up the escalator to the check-in area.

Embarking on #30
The Castaway Club check in is at the far end of the counters. If there are a lot of repeat cruisers, the line there is sometimes longer than the others, so be sure to look around. But even if there is a line, we like to check in there. As the Platinum Castaway Club members, it's a matter of pride! We also like to say hello to all the wonderful people we've become friends with at the port. We always feel more like we're being welcomed home than being checked in.

The time to embarkation really flew because we met up with Donna from Dreams Unlimited Travel, which is the agency we use. Since they are internet based, we have emailed countless times and have chatted on the phone, but we'd never met face to face. It was great to finally be able to put a face to the name and voice. We chatted with her and her party until embarkation started around 12:15. I still miss the countdown that they used to do, which was a great way to build the excitement, but it's still a thrill to pass through the Mickey ears and head onto that beautiful ship.

Since you pass through Security when entering the building, the only thing you pause for is your embarkation photo as you head on board. Then a member of the cruise staff announces your family over a microphone and your vacation has officially begun.

Food, Food, and More Food
I generally kick off my trip reports with our dining experiences, since the embarkation buffet is the first order of business after boarding. Disney has been making improvements to the buffets, and it really shows. I love the new selection of delicious salads (all hubby cares about is that they still have the peel and eat shrimp). And since I adore the cold mango soup on the Magic, I was excited to see a new cold strawberry/banana soup on the Wonder. It's not quite as good as the mango, but still very good.

Although the buffet is served in both Parrot Cay and Beach Blanket Buffet, I recommend PC for two reasons. First, although I am not a soda drinker, those who are can get pop in PC but the drink choices are much more limited at BBB. Second, while the characters visit both locations, there is more room in PC so you will probably see more of them. Of course, it is very pleasant to dine al fresco at BBB so that is still a good choice. Late arrivals might not have a choice, as they will be routed to BBB once PC fills up.

There are also enhanced buffet offerings at breakfast and lunch. Although it is hard to pass up the eggs benedict at Triton's, on our next trip we are going to check them out firsthand instead of just observing. The breakfast sounds especially tempting, featuring items such as breakfast burritos on Nassau day and fresh muffins on Castaway Cay day.

As a childless couple, we are typically on the Tritons/Animators Palate/Parrot Cay rotation, and this trip was no exception. We always request second dining to allow more free time during the early evening, but although it was noted on our confirmation, hubby noticed that our Key to the World cards said we were on first seating. Change requests can be made at Wavebands at 1:30 (conveniently, the same time as Palo reservations, which are taken in the same location). Switching to second seating was no problem, since first seating is always much more in demand.

While we were there, we were warmly greeted by Ali, the manager of Palo, who knows us from the many times we've dined there. We had originally planned to skip Palo on this trip, but of course we were tempted into going. We used to skip Parrot Cay, since we weren't fond of the old menu, but it was recently revamped and is now our favorite. Now we skip Animators, which I don't recommend if you are a first time cruiser, since they have a really neat show. But we've seen it so many times that we know it by heart, so Palo typically wins out.

Tritons was our first restaurant, and as usual I had trouble choosing an appetizer because they have way too many great choices. I love the vichyssoises (cold potato soup) and salad, so those two won out, but the fried camembert cheese and the escargot are also delicious. For dinner, I love the cut-it-with-a-fork beef tenderloin and homemade mashed potatoes, although the sea bass is also exquisite. For dessert, lately I have been in the mood for plain old chocolate ice cream, which they top just the way I like it (LOTS of maraschino cherries).

On this trip, our old friend Paul from Scotland was our head server, and he made sure that we were well taken care of. Our server was Igor from Croatia, and the assistant was Lisa. It turned out that we were at a table by ourselves. Ironically, while many people prefer to be alone, hubby and I love to eat with a large group. Paul offered to seat us at another table, as there was a mother and daughter dining alone. We didn't want to intrude on people who preferred not to have dining companions, but it turned out that they were glad to have company. As a matter of fact, they were the people we'd been seated with at the embarkation lunch! They were on their sixth Disney cruise, so we got along very well.

On the next night, we dined at Palo. We had made six o'clock reservations, so we watched as the sunlight dimmed and the lights of Nassau began sparkling in the night. Dragan from Croatia was our server. He has taken care of us a couple of times before. We were also greeted by Ilana from Hungary, who is another of our favorites. We skipped the antipasto to have more room for the rest of the meal, since we always have an appetizer and dessert, and we love the bread and dipping sauces that are always served.

Although I dearly love the portobello mushroom appetizer, lately I have been opting for the delicious fish soup. For my main course, I had the veal marsala special. Hubby never changes...he always goes with the filet mignon and bleu cheese sauce. For me, there is no dessert but the chocolate souffle, but on our last cruise Dragan got hubby hooked on some sort of heavy cream concoction that is now his favorite, although I have no idea what it is called. As always, Chef Patrick outdid himself with an excellent meal.

Parrot Cay
I love the new Parrot Cay menu. For appetizers, the crab newberg is good and the cold avocado soup with pistachio cookies is great. For dinner, I do like the ribs, but the prime rib and twice baked potato usually win out. Hubby never deviates from the mixed grill. For dessert, the lemon meringue and the pecan pie are both delicious choices.

Be warned that Parrot Cay is the loudest of the three restaurants. In addition to being serenaded by a live Caribbean band, be prepared to wave your napkin, or possible even parade around the room and do the limbo in the parade of servers. Although it is not a character meal, it reminds me a lot of Chef Mickey's at the Contemporary resort.

Other Options
Since we like late seating, I will sometimes get a snack from Pluto's Dog House or from room service. Despite its name, Pluto's has plenty of options other than hot dogs. My favorite is the chicken fingers with honey mustard sauce. They also have various sandwich wraps over by Scoops. Sometimes I get ice cream, too, but I'm not really all that fond of soft serve. It takes a lot of toppings to make it palatable to me. Fortunately, they have a good variety to please any sweet tooth) marshmallows, sprinkles, M & Ms, etc.).

The Main Stage Shows

We had heard that there were some changes to Hercules, which is the first night's main stage show. They turned out to be pretty minor. Mostly, it's changes to some of the jokes, and watch for Hermes to do a flip! There was a new cast, which gave us the opportunity to compare how they stack up against the previous performers. We know the shows so well that we instantly know if someone flubs a line or if something is a little different. Last time, Hades was overshadowed by Pain and Panic. Their antics are hilarious, but in this cast Hades holds his own, too. It will be fun to see how this cast has settled in when we return for our Easter weekend cruise.

Disney Dreams
We saw Disney Dreams for the 31st time. Usually, we go to the matinee performance, but this time we booked spa appointments for the afternoon and went to the evening show. The matinee is very uncrowded and peaceful, but sometimes I like to be in a fully packed audience. The matinee is usually missing the energy of a big, enthusiastic group. It's fun to hear the delighted squeals of the children as their favorite characters appear. We were in the front row, next to a little boy sitting on his mother's lap. It was so funny to watch him reaching out to catch the bubbles during the "Under the Sea" sequence. On the other side of us, there were a number of kids who seemed to be from the same family. They were squirmy and impatient while waiting for the show to begin, but once it started they were fully engrossed. See the reactions of the little ones is priceless.

My favorite Peter Pan is currently on the Magic. I like a really playful Peter, and I was pleased to see that the one in this cast fits the bill. We loved Disney Dreams as much as always. I can't imagine ever getting tired of it.

A Great Idea
Disney has started something that I think is a great idea. On the night of the two main stage shows, they also show them on television every hour, beginning at 6:30 p.m. and running to 10:30 p.m. That way, if you miss the showing in the theater, at least you have an alternative. Also, you can see an "encore" if you want (we watched most of Disney Dreams again in our room).

The only thing I didn't like was the "canned" laughter and applause (having seen the show so many times, I know the parts where laughs and applause occur naturally) and the bubble noises dubbed in during "Under the Sea." But those are minor points that only someone as picky as me would notice. The t.v. showings are a great addition. If I had a child, I can't imagine a better way to tuck them in then with Disney Dreams playing on the television.

When we cruised, the televised versions were a different cast than the live shows. Hercules was still the old version, so it was very interesting to compare it to the one we saw live.

Other Entertainment
The "Who Wants to Be a Mousketeer" game show was absent from our cruise. We barely noticed, since we don't usually attend anyway. It used to be an evening show, but lately it has been running in the afternoon on Friday. On this trip, there was a showing of "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" in the Walt Disney Theater instead. On Friday night, there was a magic/comedy show with John Ferrentino. We skipped it for the spa, but judging from the laughter and applause when I passed the theater, people must have been enjoying it.

Since we don't have children, most of the entertainment events that we attend are aimed at adults. On this trip, we decided to FINALLY go to Dueling Pianos. We went once, right after it replaced the comedy improv, but we weren't too impressed so we've never been back even though we keep saying that we will give it another chance.

We finally made it this time. There is a family show, but we went to the adult version. The performers were The British Boogie Boys, and they were very talented. It was so funny to hear these two very British guys singing "Friends in Low Places" in a Garth Brooks accent. The show was much different than the one we attended before. At that one, you would send up dollars for requests, and the performers had some songs into which they inserted their own risque lyrics. At this one, it was more of a singing performance and audience sing-along. Even though it was billed as an adult show, there was absolutely nothing risque. We were glad that we finally went back, but Dueling Pianos just isn't our thing. Even after all this time, I still miss the improv. I love to laugh and I'm a big comedy fan, so I wish they'd at least have a standup comedian.

Oh well, even with the absence of traditional comedians, there are still plenty of opportunities for hilarity on the Disney Wonder. Two of these are Match Your Mate (similar to the Newlywed Game, but with couples who have been married for various lengths of time) and the 70's Party. This time, Match Your Mate was very tame. Its entertainment value depends mainly on the couples who are chosen, and these were very low key. I suspect that might be the case when the host said, "Go crazy if you want to be picked." Their idea of craziness was jumping up and down while yelling. In comparison, in the past I've seen people run around the room carrying their spouse in their arms, convulse on the floor in a pseudo seizure, and even stampede the stage. Of course, it will be nearly impossible to ever beat the version that we saw on the Magic in January. I think that was the ultimate Match Your Mate game, and after seeing it I'll never look at the deck 7 aft verandah or think about Boy Scouts in the same way again.

I thought that the 70s party was going to be rather tame, too, but I was pleasantly surprised. The guest appearances by Gloria Gaynor started off mild but quickly turned steamy. I've never seen it turn into a lap dance before! The John Travolta appearance was just as good, and hubby and I were splitting our sides. In addition to the show, there are plenty of good 70s hits for dancing.

We were very sad to discover that they no longer have the 80s party on the three-night cruise. Instead, they brought back 50s/60s night, which is okay but definitely not a no-miss activity. I guess that 80s night was too difficult to do. Normally, it features dances by the main stage actors, but on our last cruise, we noticed that part had been eliminated. I'm guessing that was because the 80s party is on the last night, and it's around the same time that the actors are making a farewell appearance in the atrium. Oh well, I guess that the elimination of the party is a blessing in disguise. At least we can get packed and get to bed early without feeling like we are missing something or staying out late and being bleary-eyed the next morning.

At Home in 5650
On this trip, our home base was my favorite stateroom, 5650, tucked away far aft on deck 5 in a very peaceful area. We can almost always be found in one of the two non-connecting secret porthole rooms (5520 or 5020) or 5650. I prefer aft, but although the secret porthole rooms are forward, they are worth it for the "free" view (they are sold as Cat. 10 inside staterooms but they have a porthole with an obstructed view). They are good bargain accommodations, but 5650 is my favorite.

Deck 5 is a great deck to stay on because the cabins are only located forward and aft (the kids clubs and movie theater take up the rest of the deck). This means you will have less hallway traffic, and it easier to walk across the deck because you don't have to navigate narrow hallways lined with service carts, strollers, and people popping suddenly out of staterooms. Although I know that a lot of people prefer to stay midship, I've never noticed much of a difference being forward or aft. I can feel the motion a bit more when I'm forward, and you can hear the side thrusters while docking aft, but neither of those things are a problem. Also, I like to be as close to the water as possible, and 5 is the lowest deck with stateroom verandahs.

On the Wonder (and Magic), the staterooms in general are larger than on most other cruise lines. When we've sailed on Royal Caribbean, the staterooms on Sovereign of the Seas and Viking Serenade literally felt like closets by comparison. Even on Voyager of the Seas and Radiance, two of RCCL's newer ships, the staterooms were still not as large. Also, on Radiance the lifeboats are arranged so that you cannot see straight down to the water when you are in a stateroom above them. Standing at the verandah railing and gazing down at the water is one of my greatest pleasures. Even though Disney's lifeboats are on deck 4, they are recessed so they will not block your view at all.

Interestingly, the staterooms on Disney in Categories 5 through 10 are all the same size. The difference is in the porthole, verandah, or lack of one. The staterooms in those categories have a "split" bathroom, with a sink, hair dryer, and toilet in one half and another sink and tub in the other. Many people find this very handy, although personally I find that hubby is also using the toilet when I want to try my hair. I wish the hair dryer had been located in the bathtub half, or maybe out in the stateroom, by the dresser mirror. But overall, Disney staterooms are roomy (for a cruise ship) and well appointed. There is a television set, phone, and cute propellor-shaped alarm clock, and you have a bathtub instead of a shower like on most cruise ships. We don't use it, but many people with smaller children really appreciate it.

You will also have a "cooling box" in your Disney stateroom. This is like a small refrigerator, although typically not as cold. It won't usually chill things down, but if they are already cold, it will maintain their temperature. Your stateroom host or hostess will also fill your ice bucket once or twice a day (you specify how often you want ice on a little card).

Speaking of stateroom hosts, this time we had Enrique, who was also our host on our last trip. In addition to making the usual towel animals, once night he created a "30" out of chocolates. It was very cool!

5650 was as quiet as always. The only time we ever hear some hallway noise is early on the first day, when people are still finding their way around the ship. Once they get a sense of direction, it's very rare to hear anybody passing our door. We had custom t-shirts made for this trip with a photo of the doorplate from 5650 on the front, captioned "The Barb and Tony Suite." We managed to get the secret porthole rooms for our cruises through the end of 2004, so we're going to have 5520 and 5020 t-shirts made, too. That way, if we ever forget out stateroom, all we have to do is look down on our chest.

Relaxation at the Vista Spa
No cruise is complete without a plethora of spa treatments. We try to book something every day...hubby is hooked on the seaweed wrap ever since I talked him into trying it on our three-peat, so he did two of those and a regular massage. I split my treatments between a seaweed wrap, massage/reflexology, and an absolute face and body (massage and facial). All of the treatments were absolutely blissful!

We used to watch the sailaway from the deck, but lately we have started kicking off the cruise with spa treatments that start as soon as the safety drill ends. Hearing the ship's whistle as you relax in a semi-comatose state under the talented hands of a masseuse is the perfect way to start your vacation.

We also did the surial on Nassau morning, leading to a new discovery for me. The surial chamber is divided into a steam room area with three seats that each has a hose and its own overhead and side showers. Then there is an outer area with a long tile bench, and at the other end of that area is a traditional shower. We were warned that the regular shower wasn't working, as they were waiting for a part to repair it. That didn't dampen our enthusiasm, as I figured we could hose off most of the mud with the cool water and then shower in the locker room or Rainforest. I have low blood pressure (90 over 60 is normal for me), so I usually sit under a hose stream anyway to increase my tolerance of the stream anyway.

Soon we were slathered in mud and sampling the other spa products. They put lots of stuff in the room for you to try, and I love the body scrubs and face masks, as well as the hair conditioner. I noticed that hubby was using the overhead shower and I said, "Isn't that awfully cold?", assuming that it was the same temperature as the hoses. He looked at me like I was crazy and said, "No, it's nice and hot." Apparently he has always known this, but I never realized it and in the past I've always left the nice, hot sanctuary of the stream room to use the outer shower. I thought that I was a surial expert, but now I've learned something new. As always, it was a fantastic adult experience.

Although I am very lazy while on a cruise, hubby likes to use the workout equipment. He heard a rumor that they will soon be getting new equipment on the Wonder, so if they do, we'll get some photos on our April cruise.

Castaway Cay: A Somewhat Soggy Day in Paradise
Although we have managed to dock at Castaway Cay 30 times in a row now, our streak of good weather is no longer intact. Actually, we did get to spend some beach time, but not as much as usual. We noticed while docking that the thrusters seemed to be straining more than usual, and once we disembarked, we quickly noticed the reason. The wind was wicked! Thankfully, it wasn't cold so we knew we'd still be able to take a dip if we could beat the rain.

When we disembarked around 9 a.m., the sky was choked with gray clouds, but the sun was making sporadic attempts to break through. We decided to head out to the adult beach, as hubby always packs a plastic bag so we knew we could protect our towels, beach bag, books, etc. just in case we got caught in a downpour. It takes a while to get to Serenity Bay, as you must take a tram or walk to the family beach area, then hike a ways until you come to the next tram stop. Technically, it's possible to walk to the adult beach, but it's a bit too far for me. I prefer to be chauffeured.

As we trod across the beach, looking for a good spot under an umbrella, we noticed something new. Serenity Bay used to be an unbroken expanse of sand and beach chairs, with only one rope in the water to separate it from the crew beach. But now, the middle part of the water was roped off, and there was a new podium on the beach for the rental of various watercraft (kayak, water trike, sailboat), as well as banana boat rides.

This is a pretty big change. Ever since 1998, Serenity Bay has lived up to its name as a totally serene environment. There is a bar, a desk for float rentals, a merchandise cart, and a lunch area, but none of these are on the beach. I'm not sure how much I like this...I might have rented a kayak if the weather had not been so threatening, but I wasn't very happy with the fact that a large chunk of the swimming area has been cut out. Serenity Bay is often very shallow, particularly at the end near the crew beach. In order to be able to use boats, they had to take a chunk of prime water area a little farther down. This makes it very difficult to get out to the plane wreckage where my hubby likes to snorkel. It's not an official snorkeling area, but the debris attracts a wide variety of fish and even an occasional barracuda. You used to be able to find it easily if you lined up with the first massage cabana and headed straight out.

I didn't get to see (or hear) the full impact of the banana boat, which is towed by a motor boat or jet ski, because not many people were bothering to do it. In the two hours we were there, I only saw one group go out. But I suspect that the buzz of a motor will destroy some of the serenity, and I wouldn't be surprised if it attracts people trying to bring their children, especially if the reservations for the family beach banana boat ride are all taken.

I did my swimming in the far area, where it was deep enough to get down into the water. There weren't many fish, but I did see some sponges, countless starfish, and two stingrays. No one was swimming in the same area, but there were a lot of people on the shallow side of the ropes, wading around in the ankle deep water. I don't know if that was by choice or if they didn't realize that it was deeper farther down.

After a little over an hour of swimming, hubby and I met up at our beach chairs to dry off for lunch. We had decided to head to Cookies rather than eat at the adult beach for two reasons. First, it had started drizzling and lightning was visible in the distance, and the picnic benches at Serenity Bay are not under cover. Second, although their selection of food is good (salmon...mmmm!), they do not have lobster burgers and we both wanted one of those.

The rain was coming down harder as we chugged along in the tram. By the time we got to Cookies, the seating under the sheltered pavillion was almost at capacity. We managed to grab two of the last spots and then took turns going to get our food so we wouldn't lose our seats. The rain held off while hubby got his food, but the skies opened up for a downpour as soon as I had gotten mine and gotten to within five steps of the pavillion. I sprinted under cover and managed to keep my lunch from getting too soggy. But it was a real challenge to make it back to our table, as it seemed like hundreds of bodies were huddled in every available space in the aisles.

As we ate, the rain slacked off again, and it seemed like everyone on Castaway Cay took advantage of the reprieve to head over to the lunch line. I don't think I've ever seen that many people waiting at Cookies in any of our cruises. But the reprieve was short-lived, and part two of the storm sent them scrambling for cover again. Hubby and I were just about done eating, so we decided to head for the ship as soon as there was another lull to see if we could beat part three. We packed everything into our plastic bag...we didn't worry about ourselves, as we were still damp from swimming anyway. But fortunately we made it back before the rain made its return.

We were sorry that our island time was shorter than usual, but a rainy day at Castaway Cay is better than a sunny winter day in Chicago any time. We were pleased that we had gotten some swimming/snorkeling time, as well as a delicious lunch, and now we headed to the Rainforest to top off the day. It seemed like half the ship had the same idea, as the Rainforest was much more crowded than usual. I wasn't surprised, as it's a great place to curl up with a good book in the mild sauna or the heated tile loungers or to bask in the passion fruit scented shower.

When we got back to our stateroom, we were a little disappointed that it was raining again, preventing us from taking our traditional sailaway position outside on the verandah. Instead, we watched through the door from the shelter of our stateroom. It is always bittersweet to watch as the ship pulls away and the island recedes in the distance, and the gray skies made it seem even more so this time. But at least we were consoled by the fact that we'd be back again in April.

The Castaway Club and Onboard Booking
The Castaway Club is Disney's name for its club for repeat cruisers. In order to join, all you have to do is sail on the Magic or Wonder and you automatically become a member. Benefits include a dedicated check-in line at the port (although it pays to check around because sometimes the general lines are shorter), pins and a gift in your stateroom, and an invitation to the returning cruisers party. At the party, they serve drinks and snacks, and it's a great chance to meet the captain and many of the officers. On the three day cruise, it is at 5:15 on Castaway Cay day, and we always make a point of attending. As "platinum" members, it's a matter of pride.

You can also book your next cruise while on board, and there is typically some type of special offer such as an onboard credit. Our friend Candace was the booking agent on this trip, so we stopped by to see her and to book a couple more cruises for 2004. To get the special deal, simply check your Navigator for the hours of the booking desk. If you use a travel agency, your reservation can easily be transferred over to them. It may sound like compulsive overplanning to already have reservations for seven trips in 2004, but I like to lock in my preferred dates and the early booking savings as soon as possible. Also, the secret porthole rooms are getting harder to get as people learn about them on the internet, so booked early is the only way to ensure getting one. It's better to lock a date now and cancel later than to be disappointed by booking too late. Since 1998, I think that we have only cancelled one reservation, and that was actually just a rebooking...we swapped our planned Wonder cruise in Oct. 2003 for another 7-day Western on the Magic in May.

Kids Everywhere...Where Are The Kids?
Although I never heard an official number, I suspect that the kid population on our trip was pretty high. I noticed more children on the late seating on the Tritons/Animators/Parrot Cay rotation, which is typically heavy on childless adults, and I also saw more than usual in other areas of the ship.

But that doesn't mean that they were more underfoot than usual. The brilliance of Disney Cruise Line is that, no matter how many youngsters are on board, there are still plenty of adults-only places for escape when you want some quiet time. It doesn't matter whether there are 2 kids or 2000. As a matter of fact, although it might sound contradictory, when there are more children on board, the adult areas tend be less crowded than usual. That seems to be because when more people have children, more of them go to the family activities and areas.

One thing we did notice on this trip, more so than on our previous ones, was that more people tried to bring their children into the adult areas. It started while we were hot tubbing prior to the safety drill and a woman tried to plunk her kid into the adult pool. The pool was more crowded than usual for early on embarkation day, and the resident adults immediately chased her off. She tried to argue that the "adults only" signs only applied to the whirlpools, but no one was buying it. While in the Rainforest, a young kid came running in, but was retrieved a few minutes later. This trend also extended to the adult activities, such as Match Your Mate, the 70's Party, Dueling Pianos, etc., but each time the offenders were politely but firmly rebuffed.

This diligence is why I can wholeheartedly recommend Disney to fellow DINKs, honeymooners, and empty nesters who want to be able to spend some quality "adult time." I would rather be on a Disney ship with a thousand kids than on Royal Caribbean with 200 because RCCL has nowhere to escape. Even though there were supposed to be a couple of adults-only areas on Voyager and Radiance, we never saw one bit of enforcement in the whole week were we aboard.

I know that many parents get ticked when they see how quiet and uncrowded the adult pool and beach can be, but I look at it this way. They are paying a premium for the availability of the kids clubs, while my premium is going for the availability of peace and quiet in the adult areas. That's how Disney maintains such an appealing product for everyone.

Of course, if the mere sight of a child makes you cringe, than Disney is probably not right for you. You are sailing on Mickey's cruise line, so of course there will be lots of little ones, and you will see them at meals, at the shows, and all around the ship. Personally, I get a real kick out of watching them as they delight in the experience of a cruise. Nothing can chase away the blues like watching a child's face light up as they run to their favorite character for a hug or even as they just see the ship for the first time and wander around with their eyes as wide as saucers, full of awe.

One of my favorite memories occurred at a long-ago sailaway. Now, we typically get a massage right after the safety drill, so we are holed up in the spa as the ship heads out to sea. But we used to bring bottles of bubbles and blow them to celebrate the sailaway. We always brought extra because bubbles attract kids and it adds to the fun to be able to share. On this trip, we were at the front of the ship, and one little boy was absolutely fascinated. We gave him a bottle, and he climbed onto one of the loungers chairs and stood there blowing bubbles. I can still recall his look of delight as he perched there with the wind in his face, a trail of bubbles blowing behind him. Cruising will never get boring for us, no matter how many times we do it, as long as there are still fresh eyes to see the experience through.

Hurry Up and Wait
I was very nervous on this trip, as we had an 11 a.m. flight home, and in February (when the terrorist alert was orange), it took literally an hour to disembark. Although an hour or more is the norm on RCCL, on Disney you can typically walk right off with little or no line. But with the new security procedures, each person was required to show their drivers license and another form of ID such as a birth certificate or passport. This was announced, but apparently we were the only ones who paid attention, as it seemed that nearly every one in front of us had to spend 10 minutes rummaging through their bags to find the required documents. Too bad they don't have separate lines for people who are prepared and those who are not.

On this trip, the alert level had been lowered, but we were still nervous because 11 a.m. is early, even under the best of circumstances. Since we had Happy Limo picking us up, we knew we wouldn't have to wait for a bus to fill. And, knock wood, we've never run into any really bad traffic when heading back to MCO. But there is still the challenge of getting from the ship to the towncar in a timely manner.

We had booked an 8 a.m. pickup, so we woke up at 6:30 a.m., planning to skip breakfast and to disembark between 7 and 7:30 a.m., depending on the crowd. Normally, the ship is cleared by Customs nice and early, but as luck would have it, on this trip 7:30 rolled by and clearance still hasn't been given. When we got to the atrium, the crowd was thick and the line spread off into multiple directions with people attempting to jostle their way in from every available space. Last time, we chose the side that was merging in from Tritons, but when we got close to the doors, we had noticed that the lines on the other side (merging in from the Guest Services area and the hall by Route 66) were considerably shorter. This time, we chose wisely and joined the people merging in by Route 66, which puts you much closer to the doors. I felt like a line jumper, but what the heck...I'm from Chicago, where line jumping has been refined to a science and where rudeness is a necessary life skill. But since there is no rhyme nor reason to the lines, it's not really line jumping so much as a lack of organization that causes little side lines to form like the arms of an octopus, snaking out from the body.

7:30 passed with no signs of the doors opening to release us out to Customs. Finally, about 10 minutes later, we were allowed to disembark. All we had to show was drivers licenses, so things moved along very quickly from there. We had kept our luggage with us, rather than put it out the night before so it could be taken down into the terminal building. Thus, we were able to roll by the people searching for their bags and whisk through Customs with no line, so we were out within less than 10 minutes.

The towncar was already waiting for us, so we hopped in and sped off to MCO. Traffic was light, as usual, and we pulled up at the curb with plenty of time to spare. The ATA check-in had no line, but we breathed a sigh of relief that we weren't flying Southwest because, as always, their line was totally out of control. When I saw the Southwest crowd, I experienced a flashback to the ship's disembarkation line, but hubby dragged me off to the quiet of ATA.

We managed to get an exit row and still had time to shop at the Disney Store (I had promised to bring my brother some Goofy-brand salt water taffy, and we can never have too many t-shirts), Bow Wow Meow (I always bring home a goodie for the kitties so they will forgive us for abandoning them to the pet sitter's care yet again), and Starbucks. Most of the restrooms in the airport are under construction, so we also spent some time finding usable facilities.

We whizzed through Security and off to our gate at the stated boarding time, only to get the bad news: Flight Delay! Our plane was coming in from Midway, and apparently Chicago was blanketed in fog which had cut off departures. After all the stress and worry, we wouldn't be leaving Orlando for a while. This is the only time we've ever had a significant delay with ATA, and the other one was caused by weather, too (a snowstorm in Chicago). Our only other delay was around 45 minutes for a minor mechanical problem, and we made up most of that time once we were aloft. I have heard people badmouth ATA's on-time record, but we fly them a lot and have never really had any problems.

We whipped out our arsenal of books, games, and music to help us pass the time. It was over an hour before our plane finally showed up, and then they had to get everyone off and service it before we could board. The boarding process was something of a free-for-all, as people were very grumpy and not inclined to wait for their row to be called, but soon we were buckled in and lifting off for home.

We had more turbulence than I expected, which can be a little hair-raising for a white knuckle flier like me. It may seem amazing with all of the trips we take, but I am scared to death of flying. Of course, I'm more scared of not taking vacations, and I know logically that air travel is statistically safe, so that's how I managed to talk myself into getting on planes so often.

Luggage always takes forever at Midway. On our last trip, it took an hour, but this time it was a speedy 45 minutes when our bags finally showed up. We wheeling them off to the parking garage and headed home in the spring like weather. It was a beautiful, sunny day in Chicago, but I was still missing the steaminess of Orlando and Castaway Cay. Oh well, #31 is in April so we won't have to wait long to return.

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