Saturday, June 12, 2004

Trip Report #31, April 2003 on the Wonder

A Bit of Background
Spending Easter on a Disney cruise has become a tradition for my husband and I. He is a 40-something computer programmer, and I am a 30-something corporate trainer/web-based training designer & developer. We don't have any children, which works out well because we are overgrown kids ourselves. It would be difficult to raise youngsters when we would probably be prone to more childish behavior than them!

We set sail on April 17th for this cruise, which was our 31st Disney cruise and our 35th cruise overall. We've been sailing on Disney Cruise Line since Labor Day weekend, 1998, and we've also cruised four times on Royal Caribbean for comparison. We are both major Disney fans who also love water, the ocean, beaches, and top-notch resorts, so Disney Cruise Line is a perfect fit for us.

Contingency Plans at Midway Airport
Hubby and I book our own flights and transfers to Port Canaveral, and we've learned that it's much less stressful to fly out the night before a cruise. That leaves a safety net for unexpected delays, and it also allows us to get a good night's sleep and start our cruise refreshed rather than sleep deprived. Otherwise, we'd be leaving home at the crack of dawn to catch an early morning flight and stressing out if we ran into traffic, long security lines, or weather delays. That's definitely not the ideal way to start a trip.

I am able to leave work early if I put in extra hours earlier in the week. Depending on our flight time, hubby either leaves a little early, too, or takes a vacation day. On this trip, he took the day off because a late afternoon flight was the latest I could get, probably due to the holiday. He finalized the packing while I was at work, and when I got home, we were ready to hop into Canyonero (my Aztek) and head out to Midway.

We typically fly ATA (American Trans Air, not to be confused with Air Tran). ATA is a former charter airline that went to general service a few years back. They used to specialize in vacation destinations, but now they are aiming at the general market. I like them better than Southwest because their fares are low and they pre-assign seats. I hate cattle calls; I want to know in advance that I have a decent seat. ATA is only in certain markets, so many people have never heard of them, but we like them a lot.

At Midway, we typically park in the garage when we are taking a three-day cruise. It's pricey ($23 a day), but still less than a limo would cost, and the convenience is well worth the price. You just park, hop in the elevator, and in seconds you're at the ticket counter. For longer cruises, the cost is prohibitive, so we park at an offsite lot. I hate the crowded shuttle buses to and from Midway's economy lots, so we park at one of two nearby independent lots. They are much cheaper, and their shuttles are typically much less crowded.

Since this was a short cruise, we were hoping to park in the garage as usual. Last year on Easter weekend, all of the Midway lots had been full. This year, as we approached the airport, hubby called the parking information line and was assured that all the parking areas were open. We pulled into the garage (after nearly being creamed by a cab) and were greeted by attendants telling us that it was full. So much for the parking hotline! The AM radio information station is just as bad; we've gotten erroneous information from the radio more times than I can count.

We had to drive through the mazelike aisles of the garage and go through the pay booths in order to escape. Thank goodness we had left with plenty of time to spare. I am a firm believer in leaving very early. I'd rather arrive with plenty of time and have to wait around than go through the stress of being late and worrying about missing my flight if a problem arises.

Being a compulsive planner, I already had a contingency plan in place. I had a coupon for a free day of parking at Midway Park Savers, the closest of the two independent lots, tucked into our trip documents, and their phone number was programmed into my cell phone. Hubby gave them a buzz as we maneuvered out of the garage, and they assured us that they had plenty of space. We like them because they are within walking distance of the Orange Line train entrance. It's a bit of a hike from the train station to the gates, but I would rather walk it than wait forever for a humanity-packed shuttle.

The one downside of that lot is that the parking spaces and rows are very tight, so it can be a challenge if you have an SUV. I drove around the lot while hubby kept an eye out for a suitable spot for Canyonero, and we quickly found a good one. Although a shuttle to the airport is not provided, the parking lot itself is so big that a small bus continually circles it, taking people to and from the front entrance. The driver saw us unloading our bags, so he waited for us. Although we weren't too far from the front, we certainly weren't going to turn down a ride! We were pleased that contingency plan #1 had worked. If it hadn't, we would have headed to the other independent lot. It's a bit farther and requires a shuttle bus, but I'm sure that we'll give it a try someday. However, unlike Midway Park Savers, it doesn't offer internet coupons, so it's the lot of last resort for a discount lover like me.

Off Into the Wild Blue Yonder
We hiked over to Midway, where the line for ATA was negligible at the baggage counter and non-existent at the E-ticket kiosks. We always try to get exit rows, but according to the kiosks, all the exit seats were taken except the two aisle seats in row 36. We decided to grab those and then double check with the gate agent. We've sat in most of the exit rows on the 757-300 planes, but never in row 36. Some of the exit seats are much more desirable than other ones, so we didn't want to get stuck with bad ones.

The agent confirmed that all the other exit rows were gone, so we decided to take a chance. After we checked our bags, we headed through Security, where the line was thankfully very short, and killed some time with a snack in the food court before heading over to our gate. Ironically, at the gate we discovered that almost all the exit rows were assigned to families with children. I'm not sure how that happened, unless people with kids selected them at the E-ticket kiosks. The gate agent was virtually begging adults to come forward and exchange their seats for exit rows. Normally they would have been swamped, but the flight appeared to be filled mostly with families due to the holiday. Normally we would have jumped at the chance, but we already had our aisle exit seats, so that wouldn't do any good.

Eventually everyone got shuffled around and boarding commenced. We were one of the first on board, since our seats were in the back of the plane, and we got a pleasant surprise. Row 36 is a bulkhead, but with a huge amount of legroom because the exit door is in front of the seats. Since hubby and I was across the aisle from each other, he had a flight attendant and man travelling alone next to him, and I had a couple from Flint, Michigan next to me. Whenever I think of Flint, I think of Michael Moore...not for his infamous comments at the Academy Awards, but for his documentary "Roger and Me." It's one of my favorite movies. Even though he may have some controversial political views, I love his wry sense of humor in that movie.

It turned out that the woman's husband had gone to school with Michael Moore. We chatted a bit about Flint and about her experiences on other flights. The poor woman had been on a prop plane on which one of the engines caught fire. It made an emergency landing, and the people had to jump down because there were no slides...yikes! She had also been on a flight where the people had to get into crash position for the landing because of dangerous weather conditions. If I were her, I don't think I could get myself on a plane again. But I figured that we were in for a good flight because after all that rotten luck, she was due for a good one!

Between chatting with my seatmate, reading, and listening to CDs, the flight passed very quickly. Soon we were parked at the gate in Orlando, right on time. Since we were in the back of the huge plane, it took a while to get off. By the time we got to baggage claim, the bags from our flight were already arriving, so we got our luggage in record time. Hubby hooked and stacked everything together for easy transport while I called the Marriott shuttle.

Cleanliness is Next to Godliness
We almost always book our night-before accommodations via Priceline. I bid around $28 for the highest start level hotell, and we almost always get the Marriott. This trip was no exception. The Marriott shuttle is typically very prompt. The only time we ever had a long delay was when a Delta flight crew who arrived at the same time as us called for pickup on Side B of the airport, then came over to Side A to wait. The poor shuttle driver dutifully waited at Side B until he finally gave up and found them waiting cluelessly over at A when he came to get us.

But that was an isolated incident, and on this trip the shuttle responded with its usual speed and pulled up within 10 minutes of my call. We piled in, and soon we were at the Marriott. Normally when I book with Priceline, we end up in adjoining room (thankfully we've never had an undue amount of noise from next door). Once we even had to take a smoking room because full-price guests get priority when the non-smoking rooms are in short supply (fortunately, it didn't reek of stale smoke, even to a fussy person like me). But the shuttle driver told us that the hotel was only at 65 percent occupancy that night, and they gave us a really nice room. It was a non-adjoiner with a lake view.

On this trip, I was eager to conduct a little experiment. Recently we got a new cat, named Stitch, and my husband caught him peeing on the carpet. I was worried that he or our other cat, Toonces (who was miffed at having a new "brother") might be peeing somewhere else too. At Petsmart, we found a portable black light that pinpoints pet stains and other organic messes that might be invisible to the naked eye. I know that it is accurate because I tested it in a "control area" (our loft, where the cats don't go) and then used it on spots where our very sickly old cat, who died recently, had vomited. Hubby had scrubbed and cleaned those areas really good, but they still showed up under the black light. A sweep of the rest of the house revealed that one of the cats has been using one of our closet as a porta-potty! We're going to have to have the carpets steam cleaned, and it will be interesting to see if that gets rid of the mess or if it will still show up.

The box that the light had come in listed several other recommended uses, including checking the cleanliness of hotel rooms. Since we travel a lot, my curiosity was piqued so I had to bring it along. As soon as we reached our room, I flipped off the lights and did a thorough check. I had expected the room to be pretty grimy, but happily it was much cleaner than I expected. There were a couple of tiny spots in out-of-the-way areas in the bathroom. The floor was clean, as was the bedspread and most of the bedding. The only thing I found was an odd scattering of small spots on the under blanket. The rest of it was clean...perhaps the maid sneezed while making the bed? I never figured it out, but since that was the only thing that turned up, I rated the room as "acceptable."

Another thing we like about the Marriott is that it is within reasonable walking distance of several restaurants. We headed over to Bennigans for a light dinner before turning in for the night.

Journey to the Wonder
We always take a towncar from Happy Limo to the port, and we had arranged a 10 a.m. pickup with on Thursday morning. The port typically opens for check-in around 10:30, and it doesn't start getting too crowded until after 11 a.m. when the airport buses start arriving. We usually get down to the lobby a little early, and this trip was no exception. Within a few minutes, the towncar arrived and we were off to Port Canaveral. Even with a quick grocery stop at a convenience store, we still arrived a bit before 11.

You go through security before taking an escalator up to the check-in area. The crowds hadn't arrived yet, so we checked in at the Castaway Club line, located at the far end of the counter. We said hello to Tanya and the rest of our friends at the port, and hubby got us beverages at the coffee ship to enjoy while waiting for boarding to commence. He needs his caffeine in the morning, but personally I prefer the flavored steamed milk.

I just love to people-watch and observe the expressions on people's faces as they step outside to the overlook area to see that impressive vessel close up for the first time or pore over the model in the center of the terminal. The characters always come out for photos, which sends the kids into a frenzy of excitement. After sailing over 30 times, it's easy to take things for granted. But I never want to lose that sense of awe and wonder, so I always make sure to see the ship vicariously through the eyes of others. When I watch first timers and feel their sense of excitement, it doesn't seem so long ago that I was having the same experience.

Another Trip Begins
Boarding typically starts between 12:15 and 12:30, although occasionally it has started later. But on this trip it started at the usual time, so not too long after noon we were heading down the gangplank and off on another adventure. Before boarding, you pause to have your photo taken next to a dated welcome sign. Then you step onto the ship, and a member of the cruise staff announces your name while the rest of the staff applauds. You are directed to the embarkation luncheon for the first meal of what will be a nearly non-stop opportunity for eating, and your cruise has officially begun.

When your embarkation photo is taken, you will be given a raffle slip. Be sure to drop it off later at Shutters because you could win some free photos. I know that people really do win because we won a few trips back, on our first Western cruise on the Magic. When you bring your raffle ticket back, you can search for your embarkation photo. In addition to the regular picture, there will be another version with a small picture of your group surrounded by other scenes from the ship. We have that photo from a previous Magic trip, but we didn't have one from the Wonder, so we bought it.

As we headed to the restaurant, we were greeted by Kapoor, one of our previous head servers. We chatted with him for a bit, then continued on to Parrot Cay for lunch. Then we were greeted by Lito and some of our other previous servers. Their memories really amaze me! We always get such a warm welcome that I feel right at home from the moment we board the ship. The Wonder is truly our home away from home. We also had a great surprise...we had thought our favorite head server, P. J., was still on vacation, but he had returned and was working in Parrot Cay. It was a very happy reunion.

At Home on the High Seas
After lunch (I'll detail the food in the dining section of my report), we headed all the way aft to stateroom 5650, which is on the starboard side of deck 5. Hubby likes starboard best because of the view at Castaway Cay. I never used to have a side preference myself, but I fell in love with 5650 for other reasons (the peacefulness and the large verandah). Now starboard has become my favorite by default. I'm sure that the mirror stateroom on the port side, 5150, also had its charms, but I have become a creature of habit. Even when we book a secret porthole room (Category 10 staterooms that have a "free" obstructed view porthole), we typically book 5520 if it is available, rather than 5020 on the port side.

Of course, as soon as it was dark enough, I had to whip out my handy-dandy black light to see if 5650 looked as good under its probing glare as it did in the daylight. I'm happy to report that it passed with flying colors. The only thing that turned up was a tiny spot, smaller than my pinky finger nail, behind the bathroom sink's drain pipe. Amazingly, the entire carpet was clean…I definitely can't say that for my own house! The bedding was immaculate, as was the couch. With over 2000 people sailing twice a week, I thought that surely old stains would be visible on the carpet. The level of cleanliness is very impressive.

Safety First
The first few hours on the ship are always a madhouse of activity. Besides lunch and getting settled in your stateroom, there is the ressie scramble if you want reservations for Palo, the spa, and/or Flounders Reef (baby care). If it's your first Disney cruise, you'll also want to spend some time exploring the ship, either by yourself or on the guided tour. There are shore excursion and shopping presentations, or maybe you'll just opt for some pool or jacuzzi time, since the pool areas are not too crowded early on embarkation day. If you have kids, you can also sign them up for the kids clubs (don't worry about rushing because space in the children's programs is not limited).

But the one activity that is probably the most universally disliked, yet the most important, is the safety drill, which gets underway at 4 p.m. Everyone is required to don their life jacket and head to their assigned station, which is listed on the back of the stateroom doors. When we are in 5650, our station is one deck down, in Animators Palate restaurant. All of the stations are located on Deck 4, but some are in the restaurant or theater, and others are outside on the deck, depending on your stateroom. We've done the drill 31 times now, and we're almost always in stateroom 5650 or one of the secret porthole rooms, so I could find our station in my sleep. That's a good thing, because in the event of an emergency, I would be well prepared.

As you head for your station, a crew member often takes note of your stateroom number, which is noted on your life jacket, and they will mark it on the attendance sheet. If they don't catch it, the remaining stateroom numbers will be called out, and you let them know you're there when yours is called. Then you listen to an announcement on safety procedures and watch a life jacket demonstration, and then you're dismissed and it's all over. Hopefully you'll never need to use the information you just learned, but if there is an emergency, you'll know what to do.

The safety drill is certainly not the most fun part of the cruise, but I'm always amazed at the number of people who don't take it seriously. Many cruises ago, there was even a man who absolutely refused to follow the crew member's instructions and ended up storming off. People like that should talk to the people who were on the Magic when it had its funnel fire. Emergencies are very unlikely, but they really can happen.

A few cruises ago, I realized that although hubby and I have taken photos of just about everything on the ship, we'd never gotten the requisite "silly life vest picture." I kept bugging hubby, as he is master of the digital camera, but somehow we managed to forget every time. This time, he put his life vest on the bed and set the camera on top of it as soon as he got to the stateroom to ensure that we'd remember.

The drill is announced by an emergency signal, although people often head to their stations a bit early. There are plenty of crew members in the hallways to point you in the right direction. We headed down to Animators and were directed to two empty chairs. As we entered, a crew member noted our stateroom number. I know he got it right because he said it out loud, so I figured that we were checked in. We took photos of each other in our trendy orange vests before the drill kicked into high gear.

When the assembly leader called out the list of stateroom numbers, I tried to listen even though I thought that ours had already been noted. Unfortunately, I was distracted by a woman standing nearby. She was wearing a walkie talkie, and throughout the entire drill, it emitted a loud beep and a burst of static every seven seconds (I know the interval because I had plenty of opportunities to mentally time it). The man sitting next to her was shooting dagger looks, but she was totally oblivious. I made a mental bet with myself that he would snap before the end of the drill and strangle her with her own life vest straps. I would gladly have served as a witness for the defense in his murder trial: "Judge, have you ever heard of Darwinism? This fine gentleman was merely culling the herd and tidying up the gene pool."

But the drill ended with no violence, and we joined the mass of humanity heading back to the staterooms. 5650 is just a short climb up the back staircase, so we were quickly "home." Normally, we forget all about the drill once it's over, but this time there was an amusing postscript. Before we left for this cruise, there was a heated discussion on the DIS message boards on safety drill attendance, playing hooky, and what happens if you miss it. I didn't give the discussion thread much thought, although I did add my two cents worth to brag about the number of times we've been to the drill. I had forgotten all about that, but later that day we received a letter that is apparently sent out to absentees. It is from the safety officer, and it stresses the importance of safety precautions and requests that you location your station. Somehow our stateroom number must not have been recorded when we entered, and if it was called, it was probably drowned out in a burst of static by the Walkie Talkie Queen.

It was interesting to see what happens to the hooky players, but hubby pointed out that there was an amusing irony. This was the one time in 31 safety drills that we actually had proof of our attendance…the photos that we finally remembered to take! Fortunately, no one arrived to throw us in the brig, but if they had, our digital camera contained the evidence. The experience have us a good laugh.

The Spa
Typically, we schedule spa appointments immediately following the drill. We enjoy watching the sailaway, but we've done it so many times now that we've shifted to spending it sprawled on a massage table. It's so neat to hear the muffled notes of "When You Wish Upon a Star" and feel the motion of the ship as it leaves Port Canaveral while your muscles are being kneaded by skillful hands.

Hubby and I always have the same treatments. The only variance is the time and order. He has massages and seaweed wraps, while I have the massage/reflexology combination, a seaweed wrap, and the Absolute Face and Body (a massage and facial combination). Normally, we also do the Surial Bath, which is the infamous steamy/muddy couples experience. But hubby had Lasik done earlier this year, and on our last trip the steam from the Surial and Rainforest caused some problems with his eyes. We skipped the Surial, and I managed to keep him out of the Rainforest, but it wasn't easy. I think he would happily live in those scented steam rooms if he could.

Most of the spa staff knows us because we spend so much time there. I can never decide which treatment I like better, the seaweed wrap or the Absolute Face and Body. The seaweed wrap is so relaxing and detoxifying, and it includes a massage. The AFB includes a massage, too, as well as a very long, pampering facial that leaves my skin baby soft. I highly recommend both of these treatments, and I never can choose, so I simply do them both. I tend to fall asleep during the treatments, and it can be disconcerting to drift off without even realizing it, then wake up suddenly and realize that you are wrapped up like a baked potato in the middle of the seaweed wrap! It takes me a few seconds to realize where I am. In the AFB, the facial is the part that usually puts me out.

I use some of the Elemis products for my face because I swim a lot, which dries out my skin, and their moisturizers are great. Hubby is worse than I am…he loves their bath synergies and swears by the Refreshing Gel for aching muscles (I'll admit that I use it too when my neck bothers me from too much computer work). You can order the spa products via the internet, but we wait until our cruises to stock up because that saves us the tax and shipping fees. Hubby is also a devotee of body brushing. You are brushed before your treatment, and it is supposed to be helpful for your circulation to brush yourself at home every day. Hubby started doing it religiously, and he was amazed when he noticed that it reduced the size of his varicose veins. I am trying to get myself in the habit of doing it, but I am not as disciplined as him.

The Shows
On this trip, the usual order of the shows had been shuffled. Instead of Hercules on the first night, there was a variety show with Gary Delaney. Herc was on the second night, and of course Disney Dreams was the grand finale. The movie "Holes," which had just been released, was also shown at various times throughout the cruise.

We had seen Gary Delaney before (I think it was on the Magic), and he is very funny. We had heard some of his material from the variety show before, but he also had some new stuff. He does comedy mixed in with comedic songs, and in addition to the family show, he does an adults only presentation later in the evening (of course, being a Disney ship, it doesn't get too raunchy). We went to the adult show, which was the same as when we'd seen it on the Magic. But even the second time around, it still made me laugh. I really miss the improv comedy, so I am always happy to see comedians performing on board.

The last time we sailed, the main stage cast was brand new, so we were anxious to see how they had settled into their roles after a month. During Hercules, we were pleased to see that they've really come together nicely and have thrown in some very funny ad libs and improvisations. In Hercules, there is some room for each cast to tinker a bit and add their own touches. We really enjoy seeing what the different casts do with the show.

We were seated in the front row, so we had a great view when the eyeball came flying off the stage (it's all fun and games till someone loses an eye). If you don't know what I'm talking about, keep an eye (no pun intended) on the Fates when they give their predictions to Hades. There was a technical difficulty (Hades' throne didn't rise to bring him up for his dramatic entrance from the Underworld), but the actors covered for it very well. But I was sad to see that Hades only did two jokes before launching into his Top Five. His monologue used to be my favorite part of the show, but it seems to get shorter every time.

This trip marked a first for me: the first time I've ever missed seeing a live performance of Disney Dreams. It resulted from a comedy of errors that began when I broke my cardinal rule of ALWAYS consulting the Navigator in the morning before we start our day. Normally, hubby and I leave Castaway Cay a bit early to see the DD matinee. We then skip the evening show and do spa appointments at the evening showtime. Although there is no guarantee that there will be a matinee performance, we've been lucky so far.

On this trip, we forgot to check our Navigator before heading off to the island to make sure there was a matinee (I had already booked the evening spa appointments, figuring that there would be one). The weather on the island was so gorgeous that we decided to double check. That way, just in case there was no early show, we wouldn't miss any island time by going back to the ship for nothing.

On his way back from snorkeling, hubby asked a crew member and was told that there was, indeed, a matinee, but that it would start at 2:30 (the usual time is 3:15). This sounded very odd, so hubby asked another crew member and was told the same thing. That would mean we'd need to be back at the ship by 1:30 to shower, dress, and get to the theater, so we very reluctantly decided to skip the show. We've seen it twice on a couple of cruises (matinee and evening show), and even with his spa appointment, hubby would be able to catch most of it that night. Even though I couldn't make it, I knew that I could watch it on t.v. Disney now televises the main stage plays in the staterooms every hour on the night they are performed live. I think this is a great idea, as it allows people who might otherwise miss them to see them, and the kids can watch them again in the room while settling down for bed.

We stayed late on the island, then headed back to the ship nice and late. I looked at the Navigator in our stateroom, and the show had been at 3:15, not 2:30! We deduced that the crew members hubby asked must have been thinking of the 4-day cruise, as Disney Dreams is performed on the sea days at an earlier time. Oh well, hubby did catch most of the evening show, and I watched it (twice!) on t.v. Hubby was pleased to see that the "no flash photography" rule was being enforced. On our next trip, you can bet that I won't forget to look at my Navigator before leaving the ship.

Other Entertainment
In addition to Gary Delaney's adult show, we went to 80s Night, which is now held on Thursday night. I liked that, as it meant that the main stage dancers appeared in the show. On our last cruise, 80s Night was Saturday, which means the main stage actors had to do a farewell appearance, so they were not at the party. Their dances really add a lot to the event. They do "Time Warp" (which is the theme of the party) and also several Michael Jackson numbers.

Unfortunately, we missed 70s Night because it was on Saturday and we were at Palo pretty late and then had to finish packing. I like the 80s Party, but I LOVE the 70s Party. We definitely won't miss it on our 7-night cruise in May. That's the only bad thing about the 3-night cruise…there's not nearly enough time to do everything, even when you've sailed as many times as we have.

Disney has a lot of other entertainment opportunities, such as Krazy Karaoke and Dueling Pianos, and of course the Nassau Deck Party, so if you like to party into the wee hours of the morning, you will find lots to do. On the shorter cruise, we typically go to bed a little early because we want to get up early for Castaway Cay and also get a good night's sleep before disembarkation. That's one nice thing about the 7 day vs. the shorter can stay up later and not have to worry so much about getting up the next morning unless you have an early shore excursion planned.

Food, Food, Everywhere
Cruising is practically synonymous with food, and Disney is no exception. You will find opportunities to eat from the time you board until you bid the ship adieu. If the restaurants or snack bars aren't open, no problem. Just pick up the phone and dial Room Service, 24 hours a day.

You kick off your trip with the lavish embarkation buffet. Hubby is happy piling through loads of jumbo shrimp, but personally I love the wide variety of salads and the cold banana/strawberry soup that was recently added. It reminds me of the heavenly cold mango soup on the Magic. There is always carved meat on the buffet, too. Usually it's beef, but this time is was lamb. Mmmmmm! There was a large dish of mint jelly to smother on it, so I was in Heaven. I love lamb, but we rarely make it at home, so I like to get my fix on the cruise. They offer it in Tritons and also as a part of the Parrot Cay mixed grill, but this is the first time I've seen it at embarkation.

Disney is continually tweaking and enhancing their menus. If you were to compare the current offerings to the very first menus in 1998, the contrast would be amazing. Because Disney is a family-oriented cruise line, their fare tends to be a bit less exotic than Royal Caribbean's and more geared towards the meat-and-potatoes crowd. But along with the steaks and grilled chicken breasts, you will find some more adventurous items like escargot (which is surprising good, considering that it's snails) and vichyssoises (cold potato soup, which I adore).

Our dining rotation is usually Tritons/Animators/Parrot Cay, but on this trip we started out in PC. We love having lots of tablemates, and we lucked out on this trip. We were seated with a couple from the DIS boards who were 4-time Disney cruises and a family from England (mom, dad, and son) who were DVC members sailing for the third time. P.J. was our head server, which guarantees a great time, and our dining team took very good care of us, handling our special requests with efficiency and a smile. It usually takes some explaining to communicate my iced tea preference (I like it made fresh from the black currant or mint tea, since the "regular" stuff comes out of a tap and I only drink fresh brewed), but once they understand the concept, I get the fresh stuff every night. A hint for fellow fresh brewed tea lovers: you can also make your own at the 24-hour drink station on Deck 9, and in addition to my two favorites, there is a wide variety of other flavors. Hubby and I also tend to mix and match the side dishes with our dinners, and the servers are great about that, too.

We love the revamped Parrot Cay menu. Hubby and I are both hooked on the cold avocado soup, and he orders the mixed grill while I opt for the prime rib. Triton's is the home of that delicious vichyssoises, and I can never decide whether to order the fried cheese or the salad to accompany it. For the main course, it's a tough choice between the lamb, beef, and sea bass.

We haven't been eating at Animators lately because it's the restaurant we typically skip for Palo. I don't recommend this to first timers, as you don't want to miss the show and the thrill of seeing black and white walls come alive with color. But we've seen it many times, and AP's menu is our least favorite, so that is the traditional night for our Palo meal.

Palo was fantastic as always. It is the adults-only restaurant, featuring Northern Italian cuisine and the best chocolate souffle that I've ever tasted. I adore the fish soup, which is always my appetizer of choice (although I recommend the portobello mushroom too), and for dinner hubby always gets the filet with gorgonzola cheese, while I opt for whatever strikes my fancy. You must make reservations for Palo in advance, and there is a charge of $5 per person (you can also add an additional gratuity for your server at the end of the meal). The atmosphere is cozy, with lots of windows (it's nice to do on Nassau night, with the lights of the city twinkling in the background), and the service is always pleasant and attentive. Although I hate to give up one of the main restaurants, Palo is almost always a must-do.

Castaway Cay
On cruise #30, our streak of good weather was broken somewhat. We managed to get in two hours of beach time before the skies let loose. This time, our luck had returned, and we had a picture perfect day. Sunny blue skies smiled down on crystal clear water. It was warm enough to swim and lie out in the sun without being uncomfortably muggy. Every now and then, a gentle breeze would rustle the palms and bring relief before the heat became too oppressive.

Hubby and I were up early and disembarked around 9:00 a.m., before the mass exodus. Although the ship was crowded with families and we knew that the gorgeous weather would draw virtually everyone onto the island, we decided to stay at the family beach rather than heading to Serenity Bay. Hubby wanted to rent a bike and go snorkeling, and we planned to have lunch at Cookies because the adult beach does not have the lobster burgers. Given our plans, it made the most sense to stay closer to the action. What many people don't realize is that if you walk all the way down to the end of the family beach, near the Heads Up Bar, you will find a quiet and semi-secluded area that typically doesn't draw many people until 11 or even 11:30. Also, it's fun to check out the telescope at in the bar's seating area to get a close-up view of the ship.

By the time we reached our favorite little spot, there were still three hammocks available (there are usually four right near the bar, but one was missing from its frame). There are no umbrellas right by the hammocks, but there are a lot of palm trees so you can typically get enough shade. We set up camp by a hammock and two beach chairs. It's such a convenient area, as a restroom and the bike rentals are only a few steps away, and the Grouper Pavilion/Castaway Jo's Game Room is right nearby. If you have kids, you'll be glad to know that there is a lifeguard stand right in the area. It is also near the volleyball net that is in the water and not too far from the kids play structure (also in the water). You used to be able to swim all the way to the shore, but there are a lot of rough rocks so the rocky area is now roped off. But there is still plenty of space to swim and the water, like the beach, typically does not get crowded until early afternoon.

Hubby went off biking while I swam around a bit. I made my way to the main part of the family beach, which had already drawn a pretty good crowd. Then I swam back to the far area and enjoyed the water for about an hour before retreating to the hammock with my book. Surprisingly, even though it was after 10:00 a.m., no one had claimed the other two hammocks. Hubby came back to get his snorkel gear and spent some time looking for fish (he said there weren't too many this time) while I continued to bask in the sun. Then he sunned himself for a while before we headed off to Cookies.

Lunch was delicious, as always. In addition to the lobster burgers, I enjoy the hot dogs and barbecued ribs, as well as the cole slaw. There is only one thing that I have never been able to figure out. In the serving line, the fixings for the hot dogs (tomatoes, onions, etc.) are located BEFORE the hot dogs themselves. This means you have to either put them on your plate, then pick them back up and put them on your hot dog (challenging when your plate is already loaded), or else get the hot dog first and then backtrack over the people in line behind you. I survived the "condiment juggle" and we enjoyed a tasty and filling meal. I was looking forward to Columbo cookie dough frozen yogurt for dessert, but unfortunately all they had was strawberry. Hopefully that was just a temporary outage, as icy cold cookie dough yogurt is the perfect topper to a Cookie's meal. I sure wish they served Columbo at Scoops instead of the Country Buffet/Ponderosa soft serve!

Sailing With a Capacity Crowd
We often sail on holidays in order to save as many precious vacation days as possible (that's also why we usually do the three day cruise instead of the seven). That means that the ship is often filled to capacity on our trips. People often ask if that's a bad thing, but I can honestly say that it really doesn't affect us much. It's not like visiting Disney World in the middle of July and waiting in a 2-hour line out in the 102 degree heat. The ship was built to handle a full house, so the impact is not as great as you might expect. Just use a little common sense and do some pre-planning, and you'll probably forget that you're sailing with over 2500 other people:

-Book your shore excursions ahead of time. You'll have one less line to wait in on the ship, and you'll have a much better chance of getting the excursions that you want.

-Arrive at the port early. Get a good place in the boarding line, and then have one member of your party hold your place while the others go off to explore, take photos, see the characters, etc. Then, you can eat lunch as soon as you board and still get to Palo or the spa in time to score premium reservations.

-Split up for the "ressie scramble." Have one member of your party go to the spa while the other goes to Palo. If necessary, stay in touch with walkie-talkies or cell phones.

-If you use walkie-talkies, get the kind with sub-channels. Otherwise, when the ship is crowded, you'll find yourself fighting over 13 channels with hundreds of other people.

-Choose your stateroom wisely. If you will be on a full ship and don't like hallway noise (like me), pick a room at the end of a hall to minimize foot traffic passing by. Also, be aware that if you are in a section of staterooms that sleep four, there will likely be more families, and thus more noise potential passing by.

-Get to the shows a little early if you are fussy about your seats. Normally, there is plenty of room for everyone, but if you arrive late, you won't be able to pick and choose your spot. The doors open half an hour before the show begins, so if you want to sit in a certain area, get there early to avoid dissapointment.

-Use the pools at "off times." The pool areas can become very crowded at prime times. Use time at off-times, like when everyone is on shore or is getting dressed for dinner. We never bother to disembark in Nassau. Instead, we spend some time in the whirlpools. On Castaway Cay day, we typically catch the Disney Dreams matinee, which leaves the evening open for more quality pool time.

-Escape to quiet areas like the "secret" deck 7 aft verandah or quieter lounge like the Cadillac Lounge. If you are an adult, take full advantage of the adults-only areas like the Serenity Bay beach, Quiet Cove pool and spa.

-Get into the spirit of things. If the crowds are being noisy and boisterous…join right in! It's fun to share the good times with a joyful hoard of people.

Following the Rules
One hot topic that shows up in frequently various forms on the DIS boards is rules, whether it be suggested dress, the smoking policy, lounge chair hogs who claim a pool seat and never sit there, enforcement of adults-only areas, or potty trained kids in the pools. In 31 trips, we have witnessed all manner of behavior, and I find it interesting to note the enforcement (or lack thereof) of certain policies and of peoples' reactions.

In a perfect world, this wouldn't be a hot topic at all because people would practice courtesy and common sense. But unfortunately a lot of people have an attitude that "it's all about me," even when that infringes on others. My suggestion on dealing with those types is to politely but firmly refuse to let them infringe on you. For example, a lot of people complain about the chair hogs. These are people who claim a pool chair by tossing an item or two on it, then don't actually sit in the chair. My solution is simple. The Navigator clearly states that saving of pool chairs is not allowed. Bring the Navigator with you, and if you notice a chair that has been unoccupied for more than 30 minutes, simply move the items and claim it yourself. If the hog has the nerve to confront you, simply whip out the Navigator and point out the policy.

The same goes for the adult pool. The crew does a good job of shooing the kids away, but if we are in the whirlpool and youngsters try to climb in, I politely but firmly point out that they are not allowed in the adult facilities. I've never gotten an argument yet, but if I ever did, there are plenty of signs that I could point out. On the adult beach, I have summoned a crew member when needed to ask offending families to leave (my favorite was the couple who left their two-year-old on the beach while they headed off into the water. The poor kid sat on a chair screaming, and they were totally oblivious. One of the bartenders had to wade out into the water to ask them to claim their panicking child and leave, and they were very miffed).

Another place where you might run into the chair hogs is in the theater. Again, this is a good time to have your Navigator handy, although you can also just ignore them. Several trips ago, hubby arrived at the left hand side of the front row at the exact same time that another person arrived at the right hand side. As he sat down, the person at the other end yelled, "You can't sit there. I'm saving this row." Hubby just totally ignored her, and she must have realized how ridiculous she sounded as she didn't press the point. If she had, there wouldn't have been much she could have done, other than trying to physically remove him (and me, too, as I was trailing close behind).

Another problem in the theater is people who take flash photos despite the announcements telling them not to. Sometimes Disney enforces this rule, and sometimes they do not. Since it's not practical for a guest to get up, walk over to the offender who might be many rows away, and tell them to knock it off, I hope that enforcement by Disney will become the norm. I typically expect this to be a problem on the ship and at Disney World, but when we went to see "The Lion King" in downtown Chicago, many people were taking flash photographs there too! It seemed to me to be the height of tackiness to take photos at a professional theater production where seats go for an average of $80. Thankfully, someone must have told them to stop, as it only happened during the first two numbers. (By the way, the play is PHENOMENAL, and I HIGHLY recommend it.)

I've never really had a lot of problems with people smoking in non-smoking areas, other than a few scattered incidents. I have respiratory problems that are aggravated by smoke, so this is something I am very sensitive to. Normally, when people light up in the non-smoking areas of the night clubs, a crew member will politely ask them to stop (although I've seen people who have to be asked two or three times). The only place where enforcement hasn't been as strict lately is in the Promenade Lounge. On three of our last cruises, I have seen people smoking there, and that's a bad spot because it is completely unenclosed and it is right on a main hallway. I'm not sure why that has been happening lately, but it is usually nearly deserted, so maybe they are afraid to chase away patrons, even when they are breaking the rules!

One area where I've never really understood the controversy is the question of dining attire. Disney makes suggestions, such as no shorts or jeans in the dining room, but these are routinely ignored by some guests. The 3-night cruises are typically quite casual. We like to dress up for dinner, but many people show up in jeans, and shorts are not unheard of. On the DIS boards, I've seen many complaints that Disney does not enforce the dress code. What people fail to realize is that a suggestion and a rule are two different things. There are no rules for dress, just suggestions, and if someone chooses to ignore those suggestions, I think it's silly to allow that to ruin my meal. They can wear whatever they are comfortable in, and I will wear what I want, too. Sometimes their bad taste makes for some amusement, such as the barefoot woman in blue jeans in Palo or the tasteful couple where the woman was wearing a tacky sundress and flip-flop shoes while the hubby had on jeans and a flamingo pink t-shirt. And who knows...maybe their luggage had been lost on the plane trip to Florida, and the flamingo shirt and flip flops were all they had!

The bottom line is: You will run into rude people wherever you go. You can't change their rudeness, but you can keep it from having a negative impact on you. If it's not something that directly affects you, simply ignore it. If it does affect you, handle it yourself or ask someone to handle it for you. The rude people are the ones who get all the publicity on the message boards, but in 31 cruises, I can assure you that they are in the minority. The vast majority of people we meet are there to have fun, just like us, and are in good spirits and a happy vacation mood. If you are a social person, you will have a field day chatting with others and having a great time.

Heading Home
One of the things that I really love about Disney is their painless disembarkation, especially when compared to Royal Caribbean's endless waits. But on our last two cruises, disembarkation has been uncharacteristically difficult and slow. One time was due to the heightened terrorist alert level, and the other was due to fog that delayed the ship's clearance at Port Canaveral.

On this trip, we had high hopes for a smooth disembarkation because we needed to make a quick stop near Disney World before heading to the airport. We arranged for Happy Limo to pick us up at 8 a.m. Our plan was to skip breakfast and disembark around 7:30, if possible. Unforeseen delays are always a possibility, but we figured that we couldn't strike out three times in a row. You can put your luggage out the night before to have it collected and delivered to the terminal, or you can keep it with you. In the terminal, you locate it via a color coded tag. It's usually a quick process, but we didn't want to take any chances, so we kept our bags.

The next morning, around 7:20, hubby thought he heard an announcement that clearance was still 20 minutes away. We figured that a line had probably already formed, so we rushed to gather our bags and do a last-minute check for forgotten items. Then, with all our gear in tow, we hustled across deck 5 and looked over the railing at the atrium to assess the crowd. There was none! No line at all, just people leisurely strolled off the ship in the typical Disney disembarkation manner. Captain Henry and our friend Karen were bidding goodbye to guests, so we paused to say goodbye before heading out to the towncar.

A Sex Change for Hubby
Traffic was light, so we made excellent time, but since we had to make a stop, we got to the airport about an hour later than usual. What a difference that hour makes! The check-in line at ATA's baggage counter wasn't bad, but the agent warned us that security was very crowded. On Sundays, as it gets later, the crowd swells to tremendous proportions because all of the people are arriving from the various cruise ships.

At security, there were literally two lines. You had to wait in the first one until there was room in the second one, which led into the checkpoint queues. The lines moved pretty steadily, and eventually we had entered the actual queues. Every few minutes there was an announcement: ""Have you ID ready, check your boarding passes, yadda, yadda yadda." Hubby happened to glance at his boarding pass, and horror of horrors!! It was for the right seat but issued to someone named Janet!

Hubby panicked and started to leave the line, but I restrained him. I had no desire to wait in the continually expanding line again. We were almost to the ID checkpoint, so I figured it was worth an extra few minutes to see if we could pass him off as Janet. At this point, hubby was freaking out, getting a little loud, and acting agitated, and these are NOT wise things to do in an airport. I kept hissing, "Shut up!" through clenched teeth, and finally he obeyed.

At this point, I could see there was no way that the ID checkers were going to miss the fact that his ID and boarding pass did not match. I was ready to plead, and I figured that even a government employee wouldn't be heartless enough to make us wait in that line again. When we reached the checkpoint, I explained the problem and whipped out a copy of our online ticket receipt, begging to be allowed to straighten it out at the gate. The checker said she couldn't let us through, but she told us that after we got it taken care of at the baggage counter, we could re-enter the line at the same place where we'd left. Bless her! ATA quickly fixed the boarding pass (although they didn't explain how Tony became Janet), and we rejoined the line, whizzed through security, and were soon at the gate.

Midway Luggage Hell
Once again we had gotten exit rows, this time in the front, so we had plenty of room to stretch out during the flight. As usual, people were oblivious of the "Fasten Seatbelts" sign, even though the captain warned that turbulence was expected due to thunderstorms. Fortunately, the only real bounce came as we descended through the clouds to land at Midway. Soon we were safely back on the ground in Chicago.

Midway is a convenient airport in many ways, but luggage claiming isn't one of them. I used to think that the delays were ATA's fault, but after some prompt experiences in Orlando, my opinion has changed. At Midway, it's not unusual for the bags to take an hour or more to appear, and this was one of those times. And once the luggage from our plane finally appeared, our bags were among the last to be sent out. Oh well, there was one bright side. As I stood waiting and staring at the empty, hypnotic silver luggage belt, I noticed that someone had deposited a large, wet, sticky wad of gum on it. But the time our bags appeared, the gum was long gone, caught on some other poor soul's bags just as they were celebrating the fact that their luggage had come out first.

Once we had all our belongings, we headed off to the parking lot where Canyonero was waiting faithfully. It's not as convenient as the parking garage, but the walk is reasonable, especially in nice weather. Also, with my internet coupon, the total bill for the whole trip wasn't a lot more than one day in the garage.

As we drove home, I watched the planes taking off over head and felt a pang of jealousy at those lucky souls who were just starting their vacations while I was returning to the real world, with work looming the next morning. But I couldn't be too jealous, as our next cruise was only a bit over a month away.

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