Saturday, June 12, 2004

Trip Report #32, May 2003 Western Caribbean Cruise on the Magic

Our thirty-second Disney cruise was a voyage aboard the Magic for my favorite itinerary: the Western Caribbean. We usually do long weekends on the Wonder, but that's only because of a lack of vacation days. I love the Magic's ports of call (Key West, Grand Cayman, and Cozumel). We had done the Western in January, but we missed Grand Cayman due to high seas. It was still a fun cruise, but the missed port was a good excuse to fit in another Western this year.
Off to the Ship
As usual, we flew ATA to Orlando because they're been offering the best deals from Chicago. They have a special where you can get one companion ticket free for every three trips or a free roundtrip for every six trips, so we've been busily racking up flights to redeem later. ATA flies out of Midway, Chicago's smaller airport. For us, Midway and O'Hare are almost equally convenient, so we choose our flights mainly by price. Also, I like ATA's aircraft, which are usually 757-300s, although once in a while we end up on a 737-800. They are nice, new airplanes with leather seats equipped with headrests and in-flight entertainment (the $2 headsets are yours to keep for use on future flights).

We like to fly out the night before our cruise so that we can get a good night's sleep. This is especially nice when we are on the late flight that doesn't get in until midnight. We usually take that one so we don't have to take a day off of work. We book a hotel near the Orlando Airport via Priceline (we specify the highest star level and usually end up with the Marriott for $25 to $28, including free shuttle). I like to have that little extra time cushion just in case there are any delays. So far we haven't needed it, but it's nice to know it's there, just in case. Otherwise, I can just imagine being delayed and running along the shore of Jetty Park at Port Canaveral shouting, "Wait for us! Wait for us!" as the ship glides away.

Even though Cicero Avenue is closer to us, we usually take it to 79th Street and then head over to Pulaski, which tends to have less traffic. Cicero gets backed up starting at the Ford City Mall, and the endless conga line of cars doesn't let up until after the airport. With Midway, we at least move slowly but steadily.

For weekend cruises, we like to park in the parking garage. It's pricey, but not too bad for a weekend, and the convenience makes it well worth the expenditure. But for a weeklong trip, we opted for Midway Park Savers, an off-site lot that is not affiliated with the airport. It's right across from the Orange Line train entrance, so you can walk rather than taking a shuttle bus. The aisles are rather narrow, which can make it a challenge to maneuver my Aztek/Canyonero, but I've learned to pick my spot wisely. I'd rather park there than in one of Midway's economy lots because it's always a stampede to get on one of their shuttle buses when you return.

One thing to remember about Parksavers is that you must pay in cash, so if you use them, make sure that you will have enough money on hand when you return. You can find an internet coupon for a day of free parking on ATA's site, among others. The Parksavers lot is so large that there is a shuttle bus continually circling it. The bus doesn't take you to the airport, just to the front of the lot. We weren't parked too far down, but the driver saw us and drove over to wait while we unloaded the car, so we took advantage of the ride.

It's a pretty good hike from the Orange Line entrance to the ticket counters, and we had a lot of luggage to juggle, but we made it and burned plenty of calories in the process (always a good thing when you're heading for a week of cruising). If it had been raining, I would have dropped off hubby and the bags at the Orange Line's Kiss and Ride lot before parking. But fortunately, the weather has always been nice every time we've used the offsite lot.

As usual, ATA's check-in counter wasn't too busy. Amazingly, there were more people at the e-ticket kiosks than at the regular check-in. We opted for the regular line, and we managed to get exit rows, which always makes the flight more pleasant. Then it was off for baggage screening. Hubby's bag caught the eye of the security workers. As he was opening the bag, the worker told us that often deodorant and toothpaste can show up as something suspicious. Sure enough, it was the toiletries bag. Soon it was double checked and our luggage was repacked and resealed. The security line was minimal, and our carry-on bags made it through without any problems, so we were on our way.

We like to sit either in the food court or at an unused gate while waiting for our flight. I see no reason to sit among the restless crowd at the gate for an hour or two, since we're already checked it. It's so much nicer to relax in peace, enjoy a snack, and either read or play handheld games. Then, a few minutes before boarding is scheduled to begin, we head over. We didn't think this trip would be any exception…we did some snacking and people watching in the food court, then did a final bathroom break before heading off to board. The only slight trauma was that the food court lines were all in the 20 minute range, and after waiting that long at Gold Coast Hot Dogs, I was informed that they were out of baked potatoes when it was finally my turn. You'd think they could at least post a sign so people wouldn't waste their time.

Surprise, surprise! The gate had been changed! Hubby got suspicious when there was no plane at the original gate, and very few people around. Turns out the new gate was literally as far away as it was possible to get. We madly sprinted across the airport, and when we got to the gate, boarding was just about to begin. Unfortunately, our gate was adjacent to one for Southwest, which was also boarding. I had never before witnessed a Southwest cattle call, and I hope that I never do again. I have never seen such mayhem! It made me very happy to have my nice pre-assigned seat.

Our boarding process was something of a cattle call too. The 757-300s have over 40 rows, and the boarding call went like this: "Rows 20 and higher." Then, "All other rows!" Usually they do it ten rows at a time, so that was quite a surprise! But overall, it went pretty smoothly, and soon we were stowing our luggage and relaxing in our seats.

We were in a wing exit row, which is not as large as the bulkheads but still not too bad. Hubby took the window and I was in the middle. We got out all our paraphernalia to keep us occupied in flight (CD players and music selection, Bose headphones, books, and games), and soon we were aloft and winging our way to Orlando for the umpteenth time and Disney Cruise #32. I like to have plenty to keep my mind occupied because, believe it or not, even though I am a frequently flyer who flies to Orlando on an almost monthly basis, I'm scared to death of flying! But I can do it because the idea of spending 24 hours in a car and wasting extra vacation days scares me even more. The music, games, and books are also nice to have in case of delays. Rather than get stressed out, I'd rather have a way to relax if some inevitable delay happens (our most unique was when we landed in Orlando, but had to sit out on the tarmac for almost an hour because the lightning was so bad that it wasn't safe for the ground crew to come out).

Happily, the flight landed on time (especially since the scheduled time is 11:59 p.m…I certainly don't want to get in much later than that!), and our luggage showed up pretty quickly. I called for the Marriott shuttle from the courtesy phones, but I kept hearing the line pick up and then hang up on me. This happened several times, and I was beginning to get nervous. We've stayed at the Marriott many, many times, and we'd never had that problem. Hubby was just about to try calling from our cell phone when I finally managed to get a human voice on the line. I arrange our shuttle pickup, and I was amazed at the number of other people waiting at such a late hour when we got to the waiting area. The van arrived promptly, we all piled in, and I think the driver broke the speed record for getting to the hotel.

We checked in and headed up to our room. With Priceline, I'm never quite sure what to expect. Usually, it's a non-smoking room with a connecting door, although once I got stuck with a smoking room and once we had a nice, premium non-connecting room with a lovely lake view. But this room definitely won the award for most interesting. It was larger than normal, with TWO connecting doors! There was one on either side of the room, and the bed appeared to be a pullman that could be put up into the wall. There was lots of furniture for sitting and lots of floor space, leading us to the theory that it might have been some type of hospitality suite. At that point, it didn't matter, as long as there was a comfy place to drop our tired heads. By 1 a.m. we were sound asleep, resting up for a week of fun.

Due to our late arrival, we had booked our towncar with Happy Limo for a little later than usual (10 a.m.). We normally opt for 9:30, but we wanted to be rested up and fresh. As it turned out, due to our excitement we were up pretty early anyway. We headed down to the lobby a little early to wait and sat on a bench just outside the doors. While we were waiting, we noticed a large number of blind people coming out with canes or dogs. Apparently there was some type of convention going on. I know that guide dogs are supposed to remain totally focused on their work, but as a large German Shepherd passed us, he suddenly veered towards out luggage, causing his poor owner to stumble on our garment bag. It was so sudden and unexpected that I didn't have time to warn him, but fortunately he didn't fall. All I can figure is that the scent of our cats on the bags, which they love to inspect while we are packing, must have attracted the dog. Fortunately, the towncar arrived right then so our tempting luggage was tossed in the trunk and we headed off to the port.

Ready to Board
The 7-day cruises are quite a bit different than the 3-day cruises when it comes to boarding. On the 3-day trips, a large number of guests are on a land-sea package that allows them to check in for the ship at their hotel. Thus, when they arrive from the WDW resorts, they don't need to stand in the check-in line. Also, the resort buses tend to arrive later, which means it takes a while for the embarkation line to start getting long.

For the 7-day cruises, everyone must check in, and there are no resort buses so people tend to arrive earlier. Disney is great about manning all of the check-in counter, so even when the lines look intimidating, they move pretty quickly. When you enter the port, don't go to the very first line you see. Walk down a little ways and you will almost always find a shorter one. There is an exclusive Castaway Club line for returning guests almost all the way at the end. Sometimes it is longer than the other lines, so be sure to check them all.

The embarkation line grows amazingly fast, so it's best to get a spot as quickly as possible once you are checked in. Then, one person in your party can hold your spot and watch the luggage while the others explore the terminal. No one will mind because they will most likely be doing the same thing. You definitely want to board as early as possible because when we sailed, Palo and spa reservations were being taken as soon as boarding commenced. If you have certain Palo times and spa treatments that you really want, be sure to get there as early as possible.

Tony and I know a lot of the port crew, so time always passes quickly for us. It's more like seeing old friends again than actually waiting. Boarding typically starts any time between noon and 1 p.m., depending on when the ship is ready for its latest crop of guests. With the Wonder, 12:15 to 12:30 seems to be the average, The Magic started a little after noon, which was nice because the line had grown quite long and was curving like a snake throughout the terminal. You pass through the Mickey ears, walk down the gangway, and have your embarkation photo taken. Then you step on board, and a member of the cruise staff announces your family name as your magical week begins.

The Magic vs. The Wonder
People often ask about the differences between the two ships, but honestly there aren't that many. While the itineraries are quite different, the ships themselves are very much like fraternal twins. They are definitely close siblings, although there are enough differences to distinguish them.

The layouts are virtually identical, but there are differences in the color schemes and décor. For example, on the Magic, the deck 3 midship restaurant is Lumiere's, while you'll find Triton's in the same spot on the Wonder. The Magic's adult entertainment district is Beat Street, while the Wonder has Route 66, and the club names and décor are also different. The main restaurant menus are almost identical (although there are subtle differences), but of course the Magic has additional days of dining with different themes. There are also differences in the stateroom decor. We were in my favorite, 5650, which I know on the Wonder almost as well as I know my own bedroom. On the Magic, the bedspread has a different pattern, and the picture over the bed is some bars from a song rather than the ship drawing that I favor. Happily, my favorite picture and its companion piece (a drawing of Castaway Cay) are both hanging in the deck 3 forward stairwell, so I saw them many times over the course of the week. Another interesting difference is that the hallway leading to deck 5 aft is silver-flocked on the Magic, as opposed to wood on the Wonder.

When the Magic used to do the 3-day itinerary on Fri to Mon., it used to be our home away from home and we felt strange on the Wonder. Then, when it switched to 7-day trips, the Wonder became our home and now the Magic is the one that feels slightly strange. But that was true of the decor only. We were amazed by the number of crew members who recognized us, even after almost five months. I felt just as warmly welcomed as I do on the Wonder. The decor may be different, but the crew's friendliness and professionalism are the same.

Because we do the three day cruise so often, we are very familiar with the 3-day restaurant menus. They used to be identical on both ships, but now there are some minor differences. For example, some of the desserts are different, and the prime rib is not on the Magic's Parrot Cay menu. But overall, the offerings are very close, and the food quality is just as high on the Magic as on its little sister.

Since there are three restaurants and you are dining for seven nights, you rotate through each restaurant twice and then repeat one. Although the surroundings are the same, the menus are different each time. Theme menus include Captains Gala, Small World, Best of…, and Mexicali. Personally, I ate a selection of appetizers most nights and skipped the main course so that I could try a wider variety of items. I love soups and salads, so I really enjoyed the cold cucumber and pea soups. Of course, I also had my favorite vichyssoises (cold potato soup) and avocado soup, which I know very well from the Wonder. The heavenly cold mango soup is still offered on the embarkation buffet, so I was sure to have a generous portion.

Our server was Sasha from Croatia, not to be confused with our cruise staff friend of the same name and nationality. Each night, in addition to the desserts that we ordered, Sasha brought a sampling of other offerings, so of course we had to try them. It was a great way to try various items. Sometimes we liked one of his "surprises" even better than what we'd originally ordered.

Our assistant server was Kendell, and he got the concept of my iced tea order very quickly. I hate the regular stuff, which comes out of a tap rather than being fresh brewed. The ships offer an excellent variety of hot teas, with flavors like mint, chamomile, and black currant, so I use them as the base for "real" iced tea at dinner. I take the hot stuff, add, ice, and voila! Sometimes it confuses the servers a little when I first order it, although they always catch on quickly. Sometimes they bring me hot water and ice and leave me to brew it myself (not a problem, except that it's virtually impossible to pour the hot tea over the ice without spilled). But the best ones pre-brew it for me and have a pitcher waiting on subsequent nights. Kendell always had black currant (my favorite) brewed and waiting.

We had met Lloyd, the dining manager, on a previous trip, so we were pleased to see him again. He was always around, overseeing the operations and making sure that all was well. We also ran into our friend Ali from the Wonder, who was temporarily over on the Magic. It's always fun to see familiar faces.

No Disney cruise is complete without a meal (or two) at Palo, the adults-only restaurant. On the 7-day cruise, in addition to dinner, there is also a champagne brunch and high tea. All of these events require advance reservations, which you can make immediately after boarding the ship. Be sure to get those reservations early, as they go fast (especially high tea, which takes a very limited number of people). Zouhaier was the Palo manager, and he was very visible, always making sure that their standard of excellent was being maintained. We know several of the servers from previous trips. Carita was there, but Salvatorre was not. We missed seeing him, but we had the pleasure of meeting his brother, Marcos. Zouhaier, Carita, and Marcos all ensured that our Palo experiences were memorable and magical.

Hubby is a brunch person, but my favorite is the high tea. Brunch is a mixture of buffet items and hot dishes served at your table. The eggs florentine is the best ever! High tea consists of tea freshly brewed from leaves that you pour through a strainer, accompanied by scones, finger sandwiches, a trifle, and chocolate eclairs. I was a bit disappointed that the cinnamon tea, which was my favorite, is no longer offered, but it has been replaced by some excellent flavored tea options so I was able to drown my sorrows with a tasty alternate.

High tea is offered on the sea days, so we attended on the second day. Unlike dinner and brunch, there is no extra cost. Apparently this makes people pretty lackadaisical, because there were only two other couples in attendance. People book it, and then get busy with other things and don't bother to show. Of course, they don't have the courtesy to call beforehand so someone on the waiting list could be contacted. Personally, I think they should be socked with a $20 fee if they don't call. Otherwise, it's such a waste of food, and so many people who couldn't get reservations are disappointed.

In addition to the main restaurants, room service is always available in case you want a little snack. Their pizza is delicious, and the service was always very prompt. If you like coffee and/or a light snack in the morning, you can pre-order it the night before and specify the delivery time. That way, the delivery can serve double duty as a snack and a wake-up call. We love to start our day with breakfast on the verandah. It's one of the nicest ways I can think of to kick off a day of vacation.

One area where the 7-day cruise definitely has the 3-day beat is in entertainment. Of course, that's because you can offer a lot more when you have a whole week vs. a long weekend. In addition to our old favorites, like the 70s and 80s parties, there is an Art of Entertaining series focused on making items like appetizers and desserts. Of course, you get to sample them too…mmmm! There is also the Navigator Series, which gives you a chance to learn about how the ship was built and to ask questions of the captain and officers, and a Behind the Scenes Series that allows you to see the Walt Disney Theater backstage, learn more about how the productions are produced, and even chat with some of the main stage actors. This is one of our favorite activities. It reminds me of the old days, when there used to be an improv comedy club on the Magic and the Wonder. At that time, the 3-day cruise offered a chat with the comedians, and they used to lead the attendees through some fun comedy exercises. On our last 7-day cruise, we sailed at the same time that a new main stage cast had just boarded. This trip was their last one before heading home, so it was great to see them again. We had fun chatting with them and also seeing how they had come together over the course of the weeks and months.

Technically, the above activities are listed as being for adults, but that is never enforced. Personally, I think that they should either enforce it or remove the adult designation because when people are allowed to bring their kids to one supposedly adult activity, it makes them think that the rules will be bent for everything. We encountered plenty of those types at the adult pool, but the crew members were diligent with enforcement. The kids were never there longer than a few minutes before someone stepped in to redirect them to the family pool.

Also, the adults only policy is definitely enforced in the nightclubs at the evening adult shows/parties and the activities such as Match Your Mate (similar to the old Newlywed Game) and Magic Quest (a truly wild scavenger hunt). On the three-day cruise, it's hard to stay up for the late activities because we are generally tired on the first night, and we try to get to bed a little early on the third night because we have to get up early for disembarkation the next morning. On the week-long cruise you can kick back, relax, and burn the midnight oil because you can usually sleep in the next day.

When we've sailed on Royal Caribbean, we've often felt like the activities for adults were lacking. Other than the main stage shows (which were so poorly timed for late seating guests on our Alaskan cruise that I never got to see them) and a few nighttime activities, RCCL seems to think that adults want to spend all their time in the casino. I could play the slots close to home, so why would I want to waste my time doing that on a cruise? With Disney, the only bad thing is that there is too much to choose from!

I also enjoy some of the family activities, such as Sailors Tales, which is sort of a cross between Liars Club and What's My Line. Three wacky characters, played by members of the cruise staff, give different definitions for the same word, and you have to figure out who is telling the truth. Even though we abstained from the first word because we knew it from a previous cruise, we still tied for first place with several other teams. The cruise staff does such a great job with the characters. Even when we don't play because we recognize the words, it's still a riot just to watch them.

Of course, there are nightly main stage shows too. On this trip, we saw "Hercules" and "Disney Dreams" (which is absolutely a no-miss show), but we didn't bother with the variety shows because we had seen most of the performers before. Instead, we opted for their evening adult shows in the Rockin' Bar D. That gave us more free time in the evenings, and the adult shows were all hilarious. We skipped "Morty" (a comedy/magic show) as usual, as that is our least favorite of the shows. Hercules is corny but funny (Hade, Pain, and Panic are always a riot), and a Disney cruise isn't really a Disney cruise unless you see "Disney Dreams."

Another neat thing about Disney cruises is that new movies are premiered at the same time on the ship as they are on land. That means that on the same day that "Finding Nemo" started in the theaters back home, it was shown on the ship, beginning with a special showing at 12:01 a.m. We were too tired to stay awake, so unfortunately we didn't get to see it. But since we know that it would most likely still be showing on our next Wonder cruise, we didn't worry about it too much. There are a wide variety of movies shown in the theater throughout the week, and there is also a good selection on the stateroom televisions. In addition, if you miss the stage shows in the theater, you can see them on your stateroom television on the appropriate days, too.

Ports of Call
Since we had been to the Western ports more than once (with the exception of Grand Cayman, as the waves were too high to tender on our last trip), we decided to do our own activities rather than book Disney shore excursions. If you are new to a port or want a no-worries experience, then it's a good idea to book through Disney. That way, you know that your transportation is arranged, that you're going on a trip that has been pre-screened, and that the ship will wait for you if you're running late in a port with an early departure time. Even if there is a very large group going on the tour, you're typically broken down into smaller groups so it's not such a mob scene. We've done the island tour and swim with stingrays (Grand Cayman) and the horseback riding and jeep tour (Cozumel) through Disney, and they were all fantastic. For the stingrays, we did the island tour in small vanloads, and the groups from each van went on separate boats. For the horseback riding, they broke us down into two smaller groups for the ride (both left at almost the same time, but with different sets of guides). For the jeeps, you are broken into groups of four and take turns driving.

But if you are experienced or just adventurous, it's possible to do any of the ports on your own or arrange your own excursions and have a great time. There are always plenty of taxis waiting near the pier, and often tour operators too. That way, even if you didn't arrange something in advance, you'll definitely find something fun to do.

Key West
Key West is a great port to explore on your own. In the past, we've done the Conch Train, which takes you on a non-stop tour of the island. This time, hubby wanted to take a photo at the southernmost point in the United States, and I wanted to see the six-toed cats at Ernest Hemingway's house, so we decided to take the trolley because it allows you to get off at designated points of interest, then resume your tour on a different vehicle later. The ticket office for both of those forms of transportation is an easy walk from the ship, and they also sell discounted Hemingway House tickets.

Hubby got is photo at the Southernmost Point stop, although it was very chaotic. Most of us were standing in a semi-organized line, but there were rude people who kept rushing in front of those who were waiting. Being from Chicago, we know how to be assertive and deal with people like that. Then we finished our trolley tour and walked the 8 blocks from Mallory Square to the Hemingway place.

Sure enough, when we got there, there were cats everywhere. It made me a little homesick for Stitch and Toonces, our two furry "kids." Not all of the cats have six toes, but the ones that did were fascinating. Their paws looked like baseball mits. You can walk through the house yourself or take a guided tour. We opted for the tour, which was very amusing and full of little anecdotes about Hemingway and his wife (or should I say wives…I had no idea the man was married so many times). My favorite was the urinal from Sloppy Joe's, which is now used as a watering fountain for the cats. Hubby got a six-toed cat pressed penny to add to his collection.

There are also lots of culinary delights to be had in Key West, including just about anything you can imagine flavored with Key Lime. I had a Key Lime shake with homemade ice cream, and we picked up some Key Lime taffy for my candy addict brother. We also bought some fresh squeezed lemonade from one of the many street vendors.

I wanted to see the Cat Man's show (he has trained cats that do amazing feats, like jumping through hoops of fire on a tightrope), but sunset is pretty late in May so we were running out of time before dinner. Instead, we returned to the ship and spent some time in the Rainforest. As we headed back to our stateroom to get ready for dinner, we noticed some shows on the pier below. There was the Cat Man! We could also see an interesting act that involved juggling flaming poles. I ended up going to dinner with wet hair because I stayed too long watching the cats and didn't have enough time to get ready, but it was worth it.

I absolutely adore Cozumel. The first time we were ever there was on a Royal Caribbean ship. We did the excursion to Xcaret, the ecological park, and absolutely adored it. On our last two Disney cruises, we had done the jeep tour and the horseback riding, and I would recommend either of those excursions wholeheartedly. This time, we decided to just bum around on our own. We weren't sure exactly what we would do, but we were leaning toward beach time at either Mr. Sanchos, Playa del Sol, or Chanakaab Natural Park. Chanakaab won out, as we knew that there was more to do there than just swim. We caught a cab at the taxi stand downtown. It's not too far of a ride, and our driver had quite a lead foot so we got there even more quickly than usual. I suspect that we might have broken a speed record! Then we paid our admission and headed off to explore the park.

There are many things to see, such as walking trails, ruins, and a little village. You can rent snorkle equipment to explore the reefs or just take a swim. I thought that the prices for the snorkel equipment were set (there are signs showing the various rates), but apparently the various kiosks are run by different people, and they will offer to make you a deal. If you're a bargain hunter, it might pay to shop around. There are also plenty of restrooms and changing facilities, and they are nice and clean. You can rent a locker, but I had read that they aren't very secure, so we just carried our things with us.

I love animals, so I pestered hubby into seeing the sea lion show. (there is an extra charge) Before the show, they bring out macaws for photos. You can snap your own picture or buy one for $5. I also noticed that they have a "swim with the sea lions" program. I had known about the opportunity to swim with the dolphins there, but a sea lion swim was new to me. He took a pass, but I had to try it. It was $59, and happily, our group was quite small so there was lots of time for interaction. We donned life jackets and then jumped into the water in the area where the sea lion show is held. The first sea lion that the trainer brought out didn't want anything to do with us! There was a quick substitution and she brought out another sea lion, Nena, who was much more cooperative.

The trainer gave us some information on sea lions, and we were all able to examine and pet Nena up close on land. Then we all jumped into the water for some more interaction. We were able to pet, hug, and kiss her, and she did tricks such as jumping over our outstretched arms. Sadly, we had not brought our camera, as we hadn't planned in advance to do anything exciting. But there were photographers, and a video was also taken, so I knew I'd have an opportunity to immortalize my experience.

When we were all done, our little group headed over to a building where we could view the video. It was $29.99, so I purchased a copy. There was lots of great footage, all set to music. We went to the store to check out our photos. There were two of me, but I only liked one. I was shocked when they quoted the price: $14.95! There was a small price break if you purchased multiple prints. That was fine if you had multiple family members who did the swim, but I only wanted one. The clerk kept trying to convince me to buy two, but I only liked one of the shots, and besides, I certainly didn't want to spend $28 (the cost of the two). All of the other people were complaining about the price, too, since photos with the birds from the sea lion show were the same size and were only $5.

Eventually the clerk starting conversing in Spanish with a woman who had showed up behind the counter. I only understand a bit, but I think he was trying to get her to cut a bargain because it would be better to get a little less money than to get none and throw the photos away. Amazingly, she wouldn't budge on the price! As much as it pained me not to have a photo, $14.95 was way too much.

Hubby had been planning to snorkel, but it was getting late. Instead, he just donned his goggles and went to check out the reef while I swam nearer to the shore. I swear that my hubby has a talent for attracting barracudas. He has seen them several times at Castaway Cay, both at the adult beach and in the family beach snorkeling area. This time, he ran into one that followed him as he swam away! Fortunately, it didn't do anything aggressive. Personally, I think that for some reason they are attracted to his wristwatch.

The skies were threatening to storm, so we decided to call it a day. We headed out to wait for a cab and arranged with the driver to drop us off at the far end of the shopping area so we could stop in the stores as we walked back. Both hubby and I wanted to get "loud" shirts for the Mexicali dinner that night. The drive was quite interesting. There was one American tourist on a scooter who was weaving precariously in and out of traffic without regard for the braking distance required by cars. His head was bare, but he had a helmet hanging from each foot! The behavior of some tourists really makes me cringe.

In the shopping area, we eventually found some nice, loudly colored shirts, but meanwhile the sky opened in a torrent. Always the prepared Boy Scout, hubby had large plastic garbage bag to protect our swim bag and our purchases. We were still wearing our swimsuits, so the rain didn't phase us. But as we sloshed along through the water, which was deeper than our ankles in some spots, we realized that drainage isn't much of a priority in Cozumel.

At the end of the pier, there were still a few brave men with their little bike-taxis, so we hired one to give us a ride back to the ship. Technically, there is no set price, as they work for tips. It was well worth a few dollars to get a ride. As we entered the ship, a crew member handed us dry towels so we could dry off a little. It felt so good! Once back at our stateroom, we peeled ourselves out of our soaked swim wear and headed to the Rainforest in the spa for a little pre-dinner relaxation.

Grand Cayman
In Grand Cayman, hubby was itching for some beach time and wanting to rent a jet ski. I love swimming with the stingrays, but I gave in because the water was very choppy and we'd heard that one of the Disney excursions had been cancelled. Instead, we took a cab to a place called Royal Palms on Seven Mile Beach. Many of the hotels on the beach will allow you to use their facilities for a small fee. I was going to try one of them, but the cab driver talked us into going to Royal Palms because it is the closest and caters to the tourist crowd (maybe he also gets a finder's fee). It's rather pricey ($3 per person admission and $5 to rent a chair), but the restrooms and showers were very clean. I don't mind a fee as long as the facilities are worth it. It wasn't overly crowded, and they had a jet ski rental kiosk too.

We rented a chair to keep our bag up and out of the sand, but we spent most of our time in the water. Hubby rented a jet ski ($65 for half an hour) and then we spent the rest of the afternoon swimming and playing in the ocean. It seemed safe enough to leave our bag on the chair, but then I noticed a group of people all crowded around our chair, with their belongings spread out all over it. I rushed out of the water to abort any attempted crime. I think they were rather startled to see a soaking wet madwoman galloping towards them through the sand! They said they were just using the chair to get their stuff ready to do. They seemed sincere, so I told them to feel free to use it and returned to my swim.

The sky was looking a little threatening, so finally we decided to call it a day. There are plenty of cabs in the parking lot, so we climbed into a large van cab. We had to wait a bit while it filled with people, and there was one obnoxious man who had everyone cringing. He was with his wife and toddler-aged daughter, and he was very offended because he had to pay for the child. He kept complaining to the driver, "I can't believe that you're charging me for my infant!" The kid was NOT an infant. She was already old enough to walk, talk, and take up a seat. But this guy just would not quit. He said, "She's so cute, you should pay me for letting you have her in your cab." Then he turned to another passenger and said, "Isn't she too cute to pay?" He kept going on and on the whole time we sat there. Finally, he asked the cab driver, "Can I take your picture?" The driver as a little confused, but agreed. "Great," said Mr. Obnoxious, "because then I can show it to everyone and say, 'Look, here's the guy who charged me three dollars for my infant.'" Then he said, "I hope you know that you're not getting any tip. The three dollars was going to be your tip, but now you're not getting anything because I have to pay for my infant." I really pity his poor wife…we only had to deal with him for about 15 minutes, but she has to live with him.

Before returning to the ship, we made a quick stop at the Tortuga Rum Cake store. If you've never tried that delicious taste treat, I highly recommend it. The cakes come in various sizes and flavors. They are great to bring home for yourself, and they're also a unique gift for friends and family. I bought a large one as a present and a small sampler pack of three flavors for myself. Believe me, you WILL taste the rum in those cakes!

Castaway Cay
I dearly love Disney's island, but arriving there is always bittersweet because it signals the end of the trip. This was one of our most memorable visits, as the weather made it one of the most beautiful days that we've ever spent there. It was hot enough for swimming, but the heat wasn't muggy or oppressive. There was a nice breeze blowing, and the sun smiled down on us all day. Last time, we'd spent the day at the family beach, so this time we decided to head to the adult beach for some peace and quiet. Hubby was moving slow in the morning, so I headed out to stake out a spot and we brought our radios so he could find me later.

I choose a couple of lounge chairs under a shady umbrella about a third of the way down the beach. For a short while, there were banana boat rides and boat rentals at Serenity Bay, but that was discontinued a couple of cruises ago. Now, all was serene as I relaxed on the lounge chair with a good book. Hubby arrived a while later, and we spent the day alternating between lounging on the beach and swimming. Hubby tried to snorkel, but it was very wavy so the sand was churned up and the fish had headed off for parts unknown.

We had lunch at the adult beach. There is a more limited selection than what you'll find at Cookies, but it's still a nice spread. There are options like cole slaw and potato salad, hamburgers, hot dogs, steak sandwiches, and grilled salmon, with fruit or frozen yogurt for dessert. The only bad thing is that there are a very limited number of picnic tables. We got there early enough to get one, but be aware that you will most likely end up sharing. We don't mind that at all, but I know there are a lot of people who don't like to eat with strangers. If you can't get a spot, you can always carry the food back to the beach. We usually see a few people doing that, although it can be a challenge hiking through the sand with your tray if your chairs are far down the beach.

We stayed on the island pretty late and then headed back to the ship just before the massive crowd. I noticed that they were doing Segway rentals, so of course hubby and I had to do it. We've rented the Segways many times before. It's pricey ($15 for 10 minutes), but it's a very unique experience. Since we've done it so often, we've become pretty good at handling them. Of course, the area in which you must stay is very small, so you can't get into too much trouble unless you hit the sides (it's lined with logs). By the time we were done with the Segways, there was a long line to get back on the ship but it was well worth it.

The Spa
Even on a three day cruise, hubby and I usually manage to pack in loads of spa treatments. Of course, on a seven day cruise, we're even more indulgent. I scheduled treatments for the days at sea, and also for Grand Cayman day, since the ship leaves early. I skipped the days at Cozumel and Grand Cayman so we would have plenty of time free to explore without having to worry about getting back to the ship at a certain time. However, I did book treatments for late on Castaway Cay day. I figured that we could catch the matinee performance of "Disney Dreams" and then relax with massages before dinner.

For my treatments, I rotate between the Absolute Face & Body (a long, luxurious treatment that features a massage and facial), the seaweed wrap/massage, which is guaranteed to put me to sleep (they cover you in warm seaweed, wrap you like a baked potato, and then top it off with a warm, comfy blanket), and the massage/reflexology combo. I know from experience just how wonderful all of those treatments are.

It's impossible for me to pick a favorite because the Absolute Face & Body and the seaweed wrap both have their charms. The seaweed wrap is so detoxifying. You can practically feel the toxins draining out with the sweat from your pores. But then you have to leave your warm cocoon to shower off before the massage. At least with the Absolute Face & Body, the only moving you have to do is to roll over on your back for the facial.

There was also a new treatment that I had to try, since it is another type of wrap. I don't think it's offered on the Wonder yet. It was some type of body polishing with a product that reminded me a lot of the sugar scrub that I get at Bath & Body Works. That scrub makes my skin baby soft, so I had to try a wrap with something similar. The body polish is rubbed all over, and then you are wrapped up in the same way that they do for the seaweed wrap. You "cook" for a while and then shower off and have a lovely massage. I liked this treatment quite a bit, although I prefer the seaweed wrap because the mixture they put on you is so nice and warm. But when the new one comes to the Wonder, I will definitely try it again.

We also managed to spend a lot of time in the Rainforest. We bought the weeklong pass, and we definitely got our money's worth. The Rainforest is a room with heated tile loungers overlooking a fountain, and there are three showers (two of which are scented), a sauna, and two scented steam rooms. Hubby likes the steam rooms, while I prefer to curl up on one of the loungers with a good book. It can get rather crowded, especially on the sea days, but the amount of people never felt overwhelming. The only thing I ever had to wait a bit for was the shower. Since we skip "Morty," "Mouseketeer," and the variety shows, we would head to the Rainforest instead. At showtimes, it's almost always virtually empty.

Since the facility is for both men and women, swim suits are required. For the first time, I ran into a woman who hadn't realized that. The only item of clothing that she had was a robe, so she had wrapped herself up in it on one of the tile loungers. She said she was quite surprised to see the men! If you prefer a unisex facility, there is a sauna in the men's and women's locker rooms that can be used free of charge. The locker rooms (or at least the women's) also have soft loungers and showers.

Out on the pool deck, we noticed that they were offering neck and shoulder massages. It was first come, first served for sign up. That's a great way to get a massage if you didn't get an appointment earlier or if you spontaneously decide you might like one. I saw many people taking advantage of it, and they all seemed to be enjoying it. The massage is done in a seated position, in a massage chair.

The Joy of Relaxation
One thing that I love about the 7-day cruise is the opportunity for sheer relaxation. Of course, if you want, you can cram your schedule with activities and be on the go as much as you like. But sometimes it's nice to just sit back, relax, and do nothing, other than maybe concentrate on the feel of the cool breeze on your face as you breathe in the salty air and watch the turquoise ocean roll by.

Since we were in good old stateroom 5650, we had a nice verandah on which to spend some quality relaxation time. Often I took a time out from the busy day to lie in the sun and rest or to indulge in a book. Breakfast out on the verandah is a perfect way to start the day. But even if you don't have an outside stateroom, there are still plenty of ways to relax. Get a pass to the Rainforest (even with a verandah, we still spend plenty of time in there too). Even though it can get crowded at times, it's never so bad that you can't find a spot in one of the saunas or steam rooms. The pools can get very crowded, especially on sea days, and lounge chairs are at a premium. But if you want to get away from the mass of humanity, go to deck 4 and sit on one of the cushioned chairs or go to the "secret" deck 7 aft verandah, which usually doesn't have much of a crowd.

Hubby and I are experts at choosing relaxation time that is timed around the crowds. As I mentioned in the section on entertainment, we skip some of the stage shows and go to the late night performances instead. Then, while everyone else is either eating or at the show, we can hang out in virtually deserted hot tubs or have some time by ourselves in the Rainforest. Keeping busy is fun, but be sure to also schedule some time to simply do nothing at all.

The Party's Over
Although it didn't go by as quickly as a three-day cruise, our seven-day Magic voyage was over much too soon. We don't attend the disembarkation talk because it is shown repeatedly on the television on the last night. We tuned in to see if there were any changes, especially with the recent changes in the terrorism alert level. Cruise Director Jim emphasized that all passengers would need two pieces of identification. I was hoping that they were paying attention because last time that was required, I don't think anyone listened. We were on the Wonder that time, and we were caught in a never-ending and never-moving line of people searching desperately through their luggage for passports and birth certifications.

This time, we had purposely set up a late (9 a.m.) pickup with Happy Limo so we wouldn't feel rushed. Usually we need to get to the airport for a flight. In that case, it's best to leave early because the security lines can get quite ugly when all of the passengers from the various cruise ships arrive. This time, however, we were spending a leisurely weekend in the Orlando area. We'd booked a hotel room in the Downtown Disney area via Priceline, so we didn't have to worry about hurrying. Instead, we decided to sleep a little later and then mosey off the ship after the initial crowd. We had time for breakfast, but we skipped it because we were still suffering from a food overload that is common to cruisers.

The ship cleared for disembarkation a little late, but the whole process was still much smoother than I expected. Of course, Disney tends to have the smoothest disembarkation process anyway when compared with other cruise lines. They let you leave when you want to, rather than forcing you to sit around all morning waiting for your luggage tag color to be called. Normally it is smooth as silk. The delays only started when security was increased, which meant more ID checks.

We headed down to the deck 3 atrium after the initial crowd had cleared out, and the wait was literally only seconds. Now, instead of checking your ID as you walk off the ship, the officials check it at the same time that you go through Customs. It was so much smoother! We had a lot of luggage, so we got a porter to transport it to the towncar waiting area. It was well worth the tip not to juggle a week's worth of bags.

We ended up walking off the ship, through Customs, and out of the terminal building much earlier than we had anticipated, so there was a little wait for the towncar. There is a large canopy set up so you can wait in the shade. I enjoy people watching, so I relaxed and watched the huge crowds packing into the Avis and Radisson vans. The Radisson is a very popular place for cruisers to stay the night before, and people often do a one-way Avis rental. The hotel and the rental car facility are at the same location, so they share transportation vehicles. Personally, I'm not big on cattle calls, so I much prefer our private towncar.

We flew back home on Sunday, but our flight was pretty late, so things were winding down at the airport by the time we arrived. The line for check-in at ATA was minimal. We managed to get an over-wing exit row, and once again, one of our luggage bags was chosen for a search. This time, it turned out to be the bath salts that we'd purchased at the spa. They are packaged in foil envelopes, which had looked suspicious on the x-ray machine. Once the inspector had checked them out, he resealed our bag and we were on our way.

Our flight was pretty well populated, but not completely full. The over-wing exit rows are not as large as the bulkhead ones, but at least you have storage under the sea in front of you, and you do have some extra leg room. We took off right on time, and I alternated between reading and napping. The flight was pretty smooth, and soon we were touching down at Midway.

We hadn't had a chance to get any dinner in Orlando, so we stopped at the food court on our way to claim our luggage at Midway. We knew that there was no reason to hurry because luggage arrives notoriously slowly there. Sure enough, by the time we got downstairs, the bags still weren't even close to arriving. There was no clue on which carousel they'd be appearing on, so hubby stood by one while I waited by the other. We figured we could communicate via our cell phones when they started to arrive.

Hubby's carousel was the winner, even though the Orlando flight never appeared on the overhead sign. He figured it out by spotting our flight number on the tags. The bags actually came rather quickly in Midway terms, which is to say that our wait was under 60 minutes. When we had gathered everything, we hustled it out and through the Orange Line exit to the parking lot across the street. The shuttle van was waiting at the front of the lot, but we decided to hoof it rather than take the precariously balanced bags apart in order to load them into the vehicle. Since we'd just returned from a week of gorging ourselves, we figured that a little exercise wouldn't hurt.

Canyonero was waiting for us in its designated spot. Sometimes it can be a challenge to get out of the parking spaces in that lot, but this time it wasn't bad at all. I've gotten pretty good at choose spots there. We dug out our ticket and the coupon, paid our cash, and were on our way. We made it home before midnight and were greeted by two very attention starved cats. There was a very nice item waiting to greet us, too: the documents for our cruise in July. As sad as it was to be home, the little booklets reminded us that Disney Cruise #33 is just around the corner.

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