Saturday, June 12, 2004

Trip Report #33, July 2003 on the Wonder

We took Disney Cruise #33 over the Fourth of July holiday weekend. Hubby and I tend to take cruises around the holidays to maximize our vacation days. Our last cruise was the seven day Western on the Magic over Memorial Day week, so I knew that three days would seem even shorter than usual.

Hubby and I were both ready of a vacation, even if it had to be a short one. He has been working a lot of overtime, and I've been working some strange split shifts because I've been delivering webcasts to Singapore, Austrlia, and China, where their morning is our night. Work is a necessary evil because it pays for vacations, but we don't like to go too long between cruises. Our motto is: Work hard and play hard too!

On this trip, as always, it was the usual cast of characters: my husband, who is 40-something, and me (30-something), a childless couple with a passion for travel in general and Disney cruising in particular. We took our first cruise in September, 1998, on the Magic, and since that time we've managed to rack up over 30 Disney cruises and four on Royal Caribbean. The Wonder is our home away from home, but we've also managed to squeeze in one Eastern and three Western cruises on the Magic.

Off to Midway Airport
Our journey typically begins at Midway Airport, where we fly ATA to Orlando. They usually have the best fares, and they also have a frequent flyer program that offers one free companion ticket for every three trips you take. Midway and O'Hare are equally convenient for us, but lately the prices on American and United have been outrageous, so we stick to good old ATA. In addition to earning free tickets, I also like their aircraft. We're almost always on a nice, new 757-300, although once in awhile it's a 737-800. Their planes have comfy leather seats with headrests and decent in-flight entertainment, and their on-time record has been very good.

We live south of Midway, near Cicero Avenue, so we take it to 79th Street and then cut over to Pulaski. It's a farther distance, but it's much faster because Pulaski has much less traffic. Cicero often grinds to a standstill once you reach the Ford City Mall, and the unmoving line of cars doesn't end until you pass the airport.

When possible, we take the last flight of the evening to Orlando. That way, we get in a day early, which gives us a little time cushion, but it doesn't cost us a vacation day. The downside is that the plane arrives at midnight, but we get a hotel room near the airport and take Happy Limo to the port the next morning. That way, we can get a decent night's sleep and still get to the port before the buses.

On this day, both hubby and I had to work a little later than usual. He had already packed our luggage the night before, so all we had time to do before leaving was to check for any forgotten items and to make sure that the cats and bird had enough food to tide them over until the pet sitter's visit. I had gassed up our trusty Aztek at lunchtime, so we loaded up and were on the road by 5:30 p.m.

Since we were heading the opposite way from the rush hour traffic, we made good time to the airport. It usually takes us about an hour to get there and get parked, and this day was no exception. On our three-day cruises, I like park in the indoor garage. It is pretty expensive but very convenient, and the cost is manageable for such a short trip. But since the weather was nice and we didn't have a lot of luggage, we opted for Midway Park Savers. That's an independent parking lot located across the street from the airport's Orange Line train entrance. I don't like Midway's "official" economy lots because it takes long enough to get your luggage in Chicago anyway, and then you have to wait forever for a bus and fight with the rest of the cattle in the hopes that you can squeeze yourself on…otherwise, you're stuck waiting for the next one. Also, there is a coupon for one free day of parking at Park Savers on ATA's website.

Park Savers is within walking distance, so there are no buses to worry about. Of course, the lot is so big that there is a constantly circling shuttle bus to take you to the front. But usually we get a spot towards the front so we don't bother with the shuttle. Some of the parking spots are very tight, which makes it a challenge to park my bulky vehicle, so I've learned to look around and choose wisely. We happened to arrive at the lot at the same time that an Orange Line train disgorged a load of passengers. Thus, I faced a double challenge: find a Canyonero-sized spot while trying not to run over the jaded Chicago commuters walking down the middle of the lane (the lot offers day parking for the train, too).

Soon enough, we found a suitable spot and hiked over to the airport. Usually ATA's check-in line is minimal, but this time the queues were filled almost to capacity with the holiday crowd. We opted for the e-ticket kiosks, which were much less crowded. Even though we were a couple of hours early, most of the exit rows were already taken. We managed to get the rear bulkhead exits, which have mega legroom but no storage space in front of you. Having to stow your bags in the overhead bin is well worth the comfort.

We were on a 43-row 757-300, and all but three seats were filled. It was very crowded with infants; on Orlando flights, I expect a high kid and baby population, but this one had more infants than our last three flights combined. Oh well, that's to be expected when flying to Mickey's hometown. It's not pleasant to be stuck in an airborne metal cigar tube with a child screaming at a pitch that could never be mistaken for Memorex (and we happened to have one of those two rows back from us). But two hours of screaming is lot easier for me to deal with than 24 hours in a car. Hubby and I bring CD players to drown out a lot of the noise, and we also have a stockpile of books and electronic games that make the time go by much faster.

I was so engrossed in my book while sitting at the gate that I didn't even realize we'd taxied to the runway until I heard the engines kick into overdrive as we headed into our takeoff. Hubby thought the flight might be bumpy due to the remnants of Tropical Storm Bill, but we managed to stay above the bad weather for most of the flight. There were a few jolts during the descent, and then we were on the runway in Orlando.

The Midnight Shuttle Battle
Usually our luggage arrives pretty quickly at MCO, but this time I was becoming convinced that I must really be at Midway, the airport with the slowest luggage delivery in the universe. The belt seemed to circle endlessly without disgorging any suitcases. Finally, the bags started arriving, and we eventually got our belongings so I could call the Marriott.

We are big fans of Priceline, and we always book our night-before hotel through them. I select the highest star level for an MCO-area hotel, and I usually get the Marriott for between $25 and $28. Their shuttle is almost always there within 10 to 15 minutes of my call, and this night was no exception. Hubby and I stood by the A25 marker, where we had been instructed to meet it. Two other parties joined us, and we all piled in when the shuttle arrived. Just then a family that had been sitting on a bench nearby, with enough luggage to clothe and supply a small army, came over and raised a fuss. They said they had been there first and the rest of us had just jumped ahead of them. I guess they didn't understand that after midnight, in airports everywhere, civilized behavior reverts to the law of survival of the fittest. They might have been in the general vicinity first, but they were sitting off in the distance so no one even knew what they were waiting for. If you're not in line, you're left behind.

Their luggage literally would not have fit in the back of the shuttle. Even if it had been empty, some of their bags would have had to go in the passenger area. As it was, there were several of us in the seats, and our respective bags in the back. The woman starting arguing that SHE had been the one to call the shuttle (of course, all the rest of us had called, too, but she seemed to think she was the only one who knew how to work a phone). The driver said, "Sorry, but I can't tell all these people to get off the shuttle." She continued yelling, so he just pulled away. He told us he thought she had originally called for a pickup from the B side, as he'd gone there earlier and couldn't find anyone. That's probably why she was ranting that she had been waiting such a long time. She'd said she was at B when she called, but she was really at A. We've seen that happen many times before.

Oh well, even though I felt a little sorry for her because I know the two sides of the airport can be confusing for "Orlando virgins," my pity was negated by the desire to crawl into a warm, soft bed. We were soon at the hotel, where I checked us in and we headed up to our room. It was a connector, which is typical with Priceline, but it also had a gorgeous pool view, as we discovered in the morning. I'm not a big fan of connecting rooms, but we've been very lucky and have never had noisy neighbors at the Marriott.

We had set up our pickup with Happy Limo for 10 a.m. the next morning so we could sleep a little late, but we were down in the lobby a bit early. Even though we try to get eight hours of sleep so we'll be refreshed for our trip, we're always so excited that we're out of bed earlier than we think we'll be before a cruise. Our towncar arrived shortly thereafter, and we were on our way to the port.

Happy offers a free grocery stop, and we often take advantage of it to pick up a few goodies. Even with the stop, we were at the port by 11 a.m. That's right before the airport buses typically start arriving, so the crowd is minimal. I still feel a thrill as we drive up to the port and I see the Disney Wonder waiting at the dock. It's easy to tell which stateroom is ours, since we were in our old favorite 5650 again and it's at the butt end of the ship. I watched as we passed it and pulled up to drop off our luggage. There was no wait to pass through Security to enter the terminal building, and the check-in lines were almost non-existent. Soon we had our Key to the World Cards and were ready to embark on Disney Cruise #33.

I know it can be hard to wait for boarding to begin, but the time always seems to pass quickly for hubby and I. We've made some great friends on the port team, and we always meet some new people, too. Chatting with them and people watching as the other passengers arrives always makes the time fly by. As boarding time draws closer, the sense of anticipation is keen. Whether it's your first time or your 33rd, there's a real feeling of magic as you pass through the giant Mickey head and head down the gangway to a weekend on the Disney Wonder.

As you embark, your photo is taken in front of a dated Welcome Aboard sign (it's available for purchase at Shutters later). Then a member of the cruise staff announces you and your family, and your vacation has officially begun. We felt especially welcomed because we've gotten to know the photographers who take the embarkation photos, and also a lot of people on cruise staff, so it was like being greeted by old friends. Our old friends Karen and Sasha were on board too, so it was a real blast.

Taking Care of Business
Once you have boarded the ship, there are a few items to take care of before you allow yourself to relax and fall into the vacation groove. The first is an activity in which you will be indulging quite frequently over the next three days: Eating! Lunch is served at Parrot Cay on Deck 3 and Beach Blanket Buffet on Deck 9. Both restaurants offer buffet-style fare, and their menus are almost identical. My favorite item is the hand-carved lamb with lots of mint jelly, while hubby goes for the peel and eat shrimp. There's a wide variety of cold salads and hot entrees, too. We really love the cold strawberry-banana soup, which is reminiscent of the heavenly cold mango soup on the Magic. It will remind you of a smoothie in a bowl. And save room because there is a huge array of tempting desserts.

Once you have eaten, it's time to plot your reservation strategy for Palo and the spa. At the port, you will receive an information sheet that lists the start times and locations. While you are waiting for boarding to begin, study that sheet well. On our trip, ressies for both Palo and the spa started at 1:30 p.m. (you can send one member of your party to each location). If you arrive at the port a little later, you may need to get your reservations before eating lunch.

Studying previous Navigators and checking your information sheet is a great help when planning your Palo and spa schedule. For example, Hercules used to be on the first night, and we like to see it, so we've been skipping spa treatments that day. But on this trip, the first show was a Welcome Aboard Show with Gary Delaney, who we've seen before. As soon as we noticed that, we changed our plans and decided to get treatments that evening at showtime. I got to the spa about 15 minutes early, and I was the only person there. But within a few minutes, a line had formed seemingly out of thin air. When the spa opens, you can go on a tour, but if you know what you want already, I highly suggest that you skip the tour and make your bookings immediately. Also, be aware that the Castaway Cay massages are usually booked at a separate table in the front of the spa.

Once you have made all of your reservations, you can settle down and relax. Hubby and I always bring our swimsuits along in our day bag so we can spend some nice hot tub time before the safety drill. It's a great, uncrowded time to enjoy the hot tubs and pools. Traditionally, I love to kick off the trip by people watching from my whirlpool vantage point. It's fun to observe the other passengers as they explore the ship with looks of awe and wonderment on their faces. Even after so many cruises, it makes me look at things from a fresh perspective. I also make a game of seeing how many people will pause to dip in a finger or toe to test the water temperature in the pool. And when children invade the adult pool, I like to see how long it takes until they are shooed away (usually within minutes). Interestingly enough, the kids are almost always accompanied by adults, and I almost always see the parent reading the "18 and Over" sign before letting their kids jump in. I'm glad that Disney takes enforcement seriously because too many people have that "the rules don't apply to my family" attitude.

Unfortunately, on this trip my people watching was seriously hampered by a sudden cloud burst. It didn't bother hubby and I, as the whirlpools are covered and we were sitting in water already anyway. But it forced most of the people to limit their exploration to the interior areas.

It was fascinating to watch the crew continually battle the water. One person kept squeegeing all the surfaces while another was using a huge machine to suck up water from the deck. Disney might not be able to control the weather, but they certainly did a good job of making the water disappear. Of course, in Florida it can be raining one minute and sunny the next. This time it took more than a few minutes, but the sun eventually won the battle. Due to the crew's ongoing efforts, barely any sign of the rain storm remained once the sun began shining again. There was enough time to count a few more finger-dippers before we had to head off to the safety drill.

Safety First
At 4 p.m., there is a mandatory emergency drill that all passengers must attend. You don your life jacket and head off to your lifeboat station, which will be located on Deck 4. Directions are posted on the back of the stateroom doors, and there are also plenty of crew members to direct you in the hallways. Since we were in 5650 once again, I knew that we would be at Station Q in Animators Palate (some of the stations are inside and some are outdoors). Usually, I don't like being inside with such a big crowd, but with the threatening weather I was happy about it for once.

The drill is kept pretty short and sweet. Attendance is taken, you listen to some information about safety while watching a demonstration of how to don your life jacket, and then everyone is dismissed. It usually goes pretty smoothly, but this time hubby and I staged a small rebellion. 5650 is right at the top of the back staircase that leads into Animators Palate (it is closed most of the time, but they open it for the drill). It's very convenient because, instead of fighting the mass of humanity that heads out the front entrance and to the main stairway, we can simply go up and be "home" almost immediately.

But every now and then they try to prevent the people who are stationed in the front of the restaurant from leaving out the back way. I've never understood that…why force people to join the crowd rather than allowing them to alleviate it by going in a less-packed direction? This happened to be one of those days, but we had no desire to be forced into the crowd of slow-moving, confused lemmings and having to go totally out of our way. We kept insisting that it made no sense to the poor crew member who was trying to shoo us out the front, so finally she gave in and allowed us to join the people leaving in the rear. We headed up the staircase and were at our stateroom in a fraction of the time it would have taken to go the other way.

Fourth of July Festivities
We love sailing on the holidays because, besides saving vacation days, we enjoy the way that Disney celebrates. Our cruise began on July 3rd, and we noticed lots of festive decorations such as red, white, and blue bunting and two enormous netfulls of balloons suspended over the atrium. I was hoping for good weather, as word had also gone out that there would be a fireworks display on the 4th after we left Nassau.

On the Fourth, the festivities started in the dining rooms, where there was a special all-American menu option, in addition to the regular menus. Throughout the evening, crew members wished us a happy Fourth of July. It was certainly an experience to hear that coming from people with such diverse nationalities!

Nassau evening was windy but rain-free, and as the deck party raged into the night, the sense of anticipation was building, and we also had a special treat. We happened to be out on our verandah relaxing after dinner, and we noticed that one of the resorts was putting on a spectacular fireworks show. It appeared to be coming from the direction of Sandals. The far aft location of 5650 was a perfect vantage point. We watched as the sky blazed with color, enjoying a little bonus show.

As the time for the official fireworks show neared, hubby and I debated taking a chance that the fireworks would be shot from the starboard side, which would allow us to see them from our verandah. But if we were wrong, we knew that we would miss a lot of the show while running up to Deck 9 and searching for a spot. We opted to play it safe and head to the upper decks, where we could easily move to the proper side once the show had begun.

We sat in chairs aft on the starboard side, but we were driven away by a couple who had to sit literally right next to us, even though the whole area was full of vacant chairs. The man lit up what looked like a cigar but what smelled like a hunk of my horse's tail hair that had been lit up and set on fire after being rolled around on a dirty stall floor. The wind was blowing right at us, so the pungent aroma was hitting us in the face like a Mike Tyson punch. We moved away from Mr. Rude and headed up to Deck 10 midship to see if there was any indication of where the fireworks would be shot.

People seemed to be equally divided between starboard and port, but based on the wind direction, hubby theorized that port would be the ultimate winner. We climbed up on some sort of giant wooden storage box to sit and await the show. Even if the fireworks were shot from the other side, we figured that we were sitting high enough to get a decent view.

As the ship pulled away from Nassau and the time grew nearer, several families wandered over to the area, standing around or perching up on the box with us. Soon, the lights of Nassau had receded in the distance, and the man sitting next to us pointed out a barge on the water. We had chosen wisely! It turned out that we were sitting directly across from the fireworks barge, so we saw every firework as it was shot up into the sky as well as when it exploded into a burst of color. The show was accompanied by "The Star Spangled Banner," and it was quite impressive. In addition to the usual traditional fireworks, there were some that made star shapes and even some Mickey heads. It was such a fun, festive way to celebration the Fourth.

But the fun didn't end until the very last night of the cruise. After the "Till We Meet Again" celebration in the atrium, the balloons that had hung in their nets so tantalizingly all weekend were finally released into the mass of humanity below. Then it was like the Fourth all over again as the kids (and many of the adults) began popping them with gusto. I had almost worn my slip-on canvas shoes, but it's a good thing that I switched to my sturdy Reeboks at the last minute because the stampede was a dangerous place for unprotected feet! Hubby was having a blast seeing how many balloons he could stomp, but I was having fun just watching. I had caught one blue balloon as it drifted to earth, so I held it above the melee. Hubby asked what I was going to do with it, and I explained that I was waiting until all the others were gone before I released it to its fate.

In a few minutes, the balloon popping wound down and the crowd began drifting away, so we were able to start heading towards Route 66, where the 70's Party was due to start. I passed a little boy who noticed that I still had a lone balloon, and he asked, "Can I have it?" I knew it was time to release Blue into the wild, so I tossed it to him as we passed and I heard one last pop as we headed down the hall. It has been quite a holiday weekend!

The big highlight of our dining experience on this trip was the chance to experience the new Palo menu. We had heard about it, and we were curious: can you really improve on perfection?

Happily, we discovered that almost all of our old favorites are still there, and they've been joined by some great new options. The excellent filet that has been a special for a long time is now a regular menu item, and I fell in love with the new eggplant carpaccio appetizer. The only two items I miss are the sea bass, which has been discontinued because it is endangered, and the fish soup. The soup is still on the menu, but it is now a tomato-based version like the Magic's (the Wonder used to have a cream soup version). For all you chocolate souffle lovers, don't worry. Your old favorite is still there, and it's just as delicious as ever. But hubby found a new favorite way to top off his meal. They have a yummy new pistachio dessert. I have to admit that I really like it, too, although not enough to abandon my souffle for.

We know the menus in the other dining rooms quite well, so both hubby and I have our own ruts. Personally, most of my favorites are appetizers, so I usually make a meal out of several of those rather than choosing a main course. I love the vichyssoise in Triton's and the cold avocado soup in Parrot Cay. The prime rib in Parrot Cay is excellent, too, although hubby usually opts for the mixed grill there. At Animators, I like the salmon with maple sauce, and when I get a main course in Triton's, it's always a hard choice but I usually end up having the beef.

Our favorite head server, P. J. from Australia, was on board. It was great to see him again, and also Rita from Brazil, as well as Chef Suzie. Our dining team was Jose and Aleksandar, and they took great care of us. I'm pretty easy to please as long as I get my "special" iced tea each night (I don't like the stuff that comes out of a tap, so I always request that they brew black currant or mint tea and then put it over ice). They made sure that it was ready for me every night and made sure that our requests were fulfilled.

Since we are always on the late seating, sometimes I will grab a snack before dinner. I highly recommend the chicken tenders that are served at Pluto's on Deck 9. They are not the processed pseudo chicken that you find in some nuggets. They are delicious strips of breaded white meat, and when combined with honey mustard dipping sauce, they are downright addictive!

We usually skip breakfast on Castaway Cay day and disembarkation day, but if we have a verandah, we love to have a morning meal on Nassau day outside in the sunshine. It's so pleasant to enjoy your breakfast out on the balcony, with Nassau and the ocean surrounding you. I can't think of a better way to kick off the day! You can either run up to Topsiders to get your food if you want a full breakfast, or else you can order continental items from room service. You will find a door tag in your stateroom that allows you to place your order the night before and specify the delivery time. They are very prompt, so we like to do the pre-order and use the delivery as our wake-up call.

The Shows
On this cruise, there was a Welcome Aboard Variety Show with Gary Delaney the first night, Hercules on Friday, and Disney Dreams on Saturday. Since we've seen Gary Delaney several times before, and since his act has been the same each time, we opted to skip the first night's show in favor of massages and some quality verandah time.

We saw Hercules as usual, and the silly jokes and antics of Pain, Panic, and Hades gave us some good laughs. On the Magic, I had noticed that the faces of Comedy and Tragedy are subtly worked into the topics of the two main "columns" on the stage. I have an eye for that, as I am a major drama mask buff, and I have a collection of almost two hundred pairs of comedy and tragedy in wall hangings, knick knacks, lamps, and other decorative forms. Sure enough, the faces were there on the Wonder too. I'm surprised that it took me this long to notice!

We usually go to the Disney Dreams matinee, but there was none on this cruise. That's the first time that's happened in a long time. Since we dined in Palo on Saturday night at 6, we saw the 8:30 show along with the main dinner seating guests. A word of advice: Get to the theater EARLY. The matinee is never crowded, but since the main seating is the most popular dinner time, the 8:30 show was literally completely full. We arrived about ten minutes before show time and there were only seven seats left, on the far lefthand side of the theater. We snagged two of those, and once the other five were taken, people were turned away. You can still see the show on television, but that can't compare to seeing it live and in person.

We were a little too close to the stage and so far off to the side that we couldn't see the rear screen. I love the part with Tinkerbelle at the end, so in order to be able to see it, we started walking out of the theater right before it came up and then paused at the top to watch the end of the show.

On Nassau afternoon, there was also a showing of the movie "Finding Nemo" in the Walt Disney Theater. It had premiered while we were sailing on the Magic, but we missed it because we knew we'd get another chance to see it on the Wonder (the premiere was at 12:01 a.m., which was a little past our bedtime). It didn't come close to my all-time favorite, Lilo and Stitch, but it was still fun to see. It doesn't have the dark humor of Lilo, but it's a good movie for the kids. Even though it's been out for a while now, there was still quite a good crowd. If you haven't seen it yet, be sure to stay all the way until the end of the credits. Also, once you see it, you'll never be able to look at a flock of seagulls again without hearing, "Mine, mine, mine, mine, mine." The first-run movies are a really nice advantage to sailing on Disney. I've heard great things about "Pirates of the Caribbean," so I am really looking forward to seeing it on our Labor Day weekend trip.

Other Entertainment
In addition to the deck party and fireworks, there was plenty of entertainment to keep us busy. The first night was the 80s party, with an adult show by Gary Delaney beforehand. Our favorite part of 80s Night is the dance numbers performed by the main stage dancers. Their Michael Jackson trilogy is great! A good-sized crowd showed up for the party, but oddly enough they were watching rather than dancing. A few people ventured out on the dance floor, but not as many as usual.

The 70s party was on Saturday night. If I didn't enjoy it so much, I would have opted for getting to bed early. But it's one of my favorite activities, so hubby and I sacrificed precious shuteye to attend. There weren't a lot of people there in the beginning, so hubby got talked into being one of the contestants in the John Travolta dance contest. In the past I've been Gloria Gaynor (that was prior to my knee injury that rendered me incapable of dancing as wildly as I used to), but in over 30 trips he had managed to avoid participating, other than a guest appearance as a Village Person. Now his streak was over, and it was his chance to make a public spectable of himself. I think the fact that he'd polished off three quarters of a bottle of champagne that evening helped to make his attitude more cooperative than usual.

Usually we don't bring our camera to the 70s party, but as luck would have it, we'd brought it to "Till We Meet Again," and we'd headed to Wavebands right afterwards, so we still had it with us. I have an excellent photo of hubby "body flossing" with his white John Travolta jacket. It was definitely one of those Kodak moments and a real crowd pleaser. I didn't think there would be a lot of people, but by the time the contests began, the crowd had grown to a respectable size. I guess people wandered in once they were done packing.

On this trip, I also saw "Till We Meet Again" for the first time. Hubby has attended before in order to get photos, but usually we're on the late seating dinner so it's hard to get out early enough to get a good spot. This time, since we'd eaten early at Palo, we had plenty of time to get there and stake out a spot at the bottom of the staircase in front of Triton's, which is perfect for character spotting.

This event is basically a character greeting and photo opportunity to end the cruise with a grand finale farewell. A wide variety of characters, including some of the main stage players, come down the stairs and fan out into the crowd to pose for photos with the people. Then they head back up the stairs where they pose for group shots, turned in all directions so you can get a good shot no matter where you are. It was a lot of fun, but if you're phobic about being in large crowds, don't be down on the main floor! The people are packed elbow to elbow, and there's lots of jostling as they seek out their favorite character for a photo. The characters head in all directions, so you'll probably have a chance to get a photo with someone, although there's no guarantee on who it will be. Snow White was the one closest to us, posing on the landing in front of the restaurant. At the very end, the crowd is showered with pixie dust. On this trip, as I mentioned earlier, we also had the Fourth of July balloon drop. Quite a finale to our trip!

Castaway Cay
Once again, we were blessed with gorgeous weather at Castaway Cay. We were up bright and early in order to be among the first people off the ship at 8:30 a.m. We were quite literally the first people to arrive at the adult beach (we have the advantage of knowing exactly where the tram stop is located, while it takes others a while to search). We set up camp at the farthest hammock down the beach. If you want a hammock, get there early, as there are only four at Serenity Bay (the family beach has a lot more).

Since we had scheduled cabana massages at 10 a.m., we decided not to swim until we were done with those. We relaxed in the sun until it was time, and afterwards we saw for a little over an hour and then headed off for lunch. We were too lazy to go all the way back to Cookies, so we ate at the adult beach. The offerings are more limited, but there is still plenty. I'm content as long as I can get my chocolate chip cookie dough frozen yogurt for dessert. I sure wish they had it on the ship, but it's only available on the island. At the adult lunch area, the picnic tables are in short supply, and they fill up quickly. But you can usually at least find someone to share with or take the food back to your beach chairs.

The water at the adult beach is very shallow when the tide was out, but on this day it was in and deep. Hubby swam out to look for the plane wreckage, where he likes to snorkel, while I paddled around closer to shore. Hubby was rather disappointed, as he said that most of the wreckage was gone. Another snorkeler told us he had seen a barracuda. I'm amazed that hubby missed it, as he seems to attract those scary things. I think they like his shiny wrist watch. They never bother him, as he's sure to keep a respectful distance when he sights one.

On our way back to the ship, we stopped to ride the Segway (the two-wheeled "human transporter" that was known as "It" before its unveiling). Segway rides are offered on the island and also on the ship at various times. I prefer to ride it on Castaway Cay because the area is a little bigger. On the ship, we once rode it in the atrium, in the area where you book shore excursions. That was definitely a unique experience! It's a little pricey, but a lot of fun. The only other place I know of where you can rent a Segway is in Celebration, so if you've always wanted to try one, be sure to look up the times and places in your Navigator.

The Spa
For me, no cruise is complete without plenty of time spent in the spa. We try to schedule a treatment for every day of the cruise. Three days goes by much too quickly, so it's a way to ensure that we squeeze lots of pampering into the short time. Back when we first started cruising, hubby used to be content with just a hydrotherapy bath (which isn't offered any more). But one day I convinced him to try a massage, and he was quickly hooked. Then, last year, I made the even bigger mistake of convincing him to try one of my favorite treatments, the seaweed wrap. Now it's HIS favorite too. He is so spoiled that he had two wraps on this trip!

For myself, I stuck with massages, reflexology, and the Absolute Face & Body, which is a decadent combination of a massage and facial. It's absolute bliss. We hadn't done cabana massages in quite some time. Lately, we've been heading back to the ship a little early to see the Disney Dreams matinee and then having spa treatments at our evening show time. But since we were going to Palo early, I booked cabana massages for 10 a.m. I figured that was early enough to have our treatments before going in the water, but not so early that we'd have to rush too much to get to the adult beach on time. It was really a pleasant experience. I'd forgotten how much I enjoy it. The only problem was, hubby and I were both so relaxed that instead of swimming, we just wanted to take a nap!

Rest and Relaxation
Since hubby and I have been so busy, we were really looking forward to some rest and relaxation on this trip. The thing we like about a Disney cruise is that you can be as busy or as laid back as you want. It's all up to you. There are plenty of activities if you want to stay busy and plenty of opportunities to just chill out if that's your preference. On this trip, we made sure to have plenty of quality verandah time relaxing outside with a good book or with our portable CD players.

We were fortunate to be in 5650, which has a lovely oversized verandah where we spent some quality time reading, gazing at the water, or just basking in the sun. We had a couple of rain showers on this trip, so I was glad that the verandah is also a little more recessed than most, which makes for a convenient shelter. We were able to sit back and watch the rain fall until the gray cloud blew over and the sun took over again.

But even if you don't have a verandah stateroom, you can always head to the deck seven aft verandah (it's public, but not a lot of people know about it) or lounge around in the comfy chairs on deck four. The Rainforest in the spa is another enjoyable spot to chill out. On our three-peat cruises last year, we were in a secret porthole room, so instead of a verandah, I spent a lot of time reading a good book while curled up in one of the heated tile loungers with the soothing trickle of water from the fountain threatening to lull me into a nap.

A Flight to Remember
After our cruise, we had booked a late flight so we could spend some time bumming around the Orlando area. By the time we got to the airport, it wasn't too crowded as most of our fellow holiday travelers were already winging their way home. We checked in and managed to get the very same exit row that we'd had on the way out, only on the other side of the plane. I was a little leery of the flight because I'd managed to come down with a sinus infection and I knew that my ears were going to be a mess. But I was armed with gum and a water bottle to suck on, so I figured that I'd get through it okay.

It looked like it was going to be another uneventful trip, just the way I like it. Takeoff was painful, but my ears settled down once we reached cruising altitude. I spent the flight writing the beginning of this trip report while hubby relaxed with his music CDs. But as we approached Chicago, I noticed that the ride was getting bumpy, and a sea of threatening clouds was visible right outside the window. Lightning flashed ominously every couple of minutes, and I noticed that our scheduled landing time had come and gone. Finally, the pilot announced that, due to the bad weather, we had to take a different approach, so we'd swung out over Peoria. He reassured us that we were heading back to Midway and would be on the ground soon.

Alas, it was not to be. More time passed, and finally the pilot got on the intercom again and announced that Midway was closed due to the weather. By this time we were running out of fuel, so he said that we'd be landing in Rockford in order to fuel up, and then hopefully be heading back to Midway. I'm a paranoid flyer at the best of times, so by this time I was freaking out due to the turbulence while landing, combined with the shooting pains in my ears. I was surprised that Rockford had a runway long enough for us to land, but apparently a lot of UPS jets fly out of there.

By the time we landed, I was ready to rent a car and drive home. Unfortunately, they wouldn't let us get off the plane during refueling. The other passengers all got up, moved around, and made frantic cell phone calls to let worried friends and family members know what was going on. We were very fortunate that we were in a roomy exit row, but most of them had been cramped into a tiny area for the past three hours. A lot of them came back to our open area to stretch their legs.

Every so often, the pilot would announce that we'd be taking off again soon, and then a few minutes later he would tell us that the plans had changed and we'd have to wait a little bit longer. This went on for well over an hour, and the clock was ticking closer and closer to midnight. I went from frantically wanting to get off the plane to a state of exhaustion where I pretty much didn't care what happened.

Finally, we were able to take off again and head to Midway. I had been nodding off, but the ear pain immediately brought me back to full consciousness. Hubby, who never worries about flying, was drifting off to dreamland while I sat next to him in a state of pain and fear. I had wondered if anyone would exhibit signs of air rage as the hours dragged on, but the passengers were all very understanding. The woman across the aisle from us was hiding under a blanket (looked like a good idea to me!), but other than that, everyone was handling things quite well.

Eventually we were coming down and approaching Midway, as my ears informed me. I don't think I've ever been so happy to see Chicago before in my whole life. As we headed down, I could see the cars and houses and read the signs on the fast food restaurants. Then I could see the airport, but suddenly the pilot kicked on the turbo thrusters and instead of setting the plane down, he took it back up into the sky! I was about ready for a heart attack, but hubby, who had been sleeping peacefully, muttered in a dreamy voice, "What's all that engine noise?" I had no idea what had happened, but finally the pilot explained that we'd been hit with a tail wind just as we were about to land. At Midway Airport, home of famously short runways, that would be a disaster, so our landing had to be aborted. Now we had to go back up, circle around, and land on a different runway. By this time, I wanted to rip my ears off and stomp them into the ground!

Happily, our next landing attempt was successful, and as the plane came to a stop, the passengers broke out in cheers. It was well after midnight, but we'd finally made it home. Of course, there had to be one more complication: there was no ground crew to bring out the jetway. It took a while, but eventually one was found and we all disembarked, glad to have our feet back on the ground.

Luggage at Midway always takes forever to show up, but this time it was even more of a joke than usual. All of the planes that had been diverted by the weather that night were landing around the same time, so the luggage area was a free-for-all. Bags from our flight were showing up on two different carousels, so hubby and I split up to make sure we would find them. Fortunately, even though there was still plenty of thunder and lightning, the rain had stopped so we were able to stay dry while walking to the car. We made it home by 2:30 a.m., exhausted and frazzled, but still pleased that overall it had been a great trip. One more little surprise awaiting us: our condo building had been struck by lightning while we were gone! Our telephones and some of our electrical devices were fried, but at that hour of the morning we were just pleased to be back and able to crawl into our nice, soft, welcoming beds.

When we were in the middle of our frantic airplane journey, I told hubby that I didn't think I'd ever get on another plane. The only thing keeping me from totally losing it and running up and down the aisles in a panic was the logical part of my mind telling me how futile that would be. It wouldn't do me a lot of good because there's no way I could get off at 30,000 feet in the air. But the funny thing is, just a few days later I was wishing that it was time to get on another flight and head out to our next trip.

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