Saturday, June 12, 2004

Trip Report #34, September 2003 on the Wonder

Disney Cruise #34 was the fifth anniversary of our very first cruise, and it was different for us in several ways. First, we were sailing with one of my co-workers and her family. We've met up with friends from the internet before, but this was the first time that someone from back home had joined us. Second, we had an unexpected treat. Disney Cruise Line's latest show, "The Golden Mickeys," debuted on our voyage! But I don't want to get ahead of myself, so I'll come to that a bit later in the report.

First Things First
Things must happen in sequence, and for us that means that all of our cruises begin at Midway Airport in Chicago. We like to fly in the night before the cruise so we don't have to worry so much about weather and other delays. We are equally distant from Midway and O'Hare, but lately ATA has been offering the best deals to Orlando. They also offer a free companion ticket for every three roundtrips, with no blackout dates, so with all our trips to FL we've become quite loyal to them and have earned some free travel.

Often, I take Pulaski Ave. to the airport, even though it's a bit more out of the way than Cicero, because traffic often jams up near Ford City mall. But on this trip, traffic was pretty light, so we chanced Cicero and made good time.

I like to park in a non-airport-owned parking lot because the Midway shuttle buses are worse than a cattle car. I typically use Midway Park Savers, which is right across from the Orange Line commuter entrance, eliminating the need for a shuttle. I drive an Aztek (or a Canyonero, if you're a Simpsons fan), and their spots can be a bit tight, but I usually manage to maneuver it in. You can get a coupon for one day of free parking there via ATA's website.

As I mentioned earlier, we were joined on this trip by a co-worker and her family (Barb, her husband Larry, and their 18 year old son, Michael). They have been through some rough times lately due to the chronic illness of their younger son, so they were all ready for a nice, relaxing vacation. This was their second Disney cruise, so they were really looking forward to it. We figured that we would all meet at the airport; as hubby and I waited in the security line, we saw them...but they were heading the other way! Turns out they just needed to check another bag, so we waited for them in the food court.

Our plane was heading in from Las Vegas before continuing on to Orlando, and Larry noticed on the "Departures" board that it was listed as 45 minutes late. When the restated boarding time grew closer, we headed over to the gate, but there was no sign of a plane at the jetway. As time passed, it became apparent that we were going to be leaving more than an hour late. Normally I don't get too bent out of shape about delays, but this flight was due to land in Orlando at midnight, so I could see precious hours of sleep drifting away.

Eventually our aircraft showed up, and after a fast turnaround, it was ready for boarding. It was my favorite type of plane, a 757-300 (stretch) with adjustable headrests and video entertainment. Hubby and I had done web check-in and had gotten comfy exit rows, so we were able to stretch out for the trip. Our friends were a little farther back, and because the plane wasn't very crowded, the gate agent had switched their seats around to give them more room to spread out.

Our flight attendant, Gonzalo, were extremely cheerful, especially for someone who'd been working since 10 a.m. that morning. He plied us with delicious ATA cookies, which I haven't seen in some time, as they serve peanuts and snack mix on the evening flights. Finally we touched down at MCO, quite late but safely, which is the important thing. Delays can happen, which is why that day-before flight is such a good idea. It's one thing to get to bed in the wee hours, but it's quite another to have to worry about possibly missing the ship.

Soon our luggage arrived, and I called the Renaissance hotel shuttle. Typically we are at the Marriott, which I get by bidding the highest star level in the MCO area via Priceline for $25 to $28. Unfortunately, this time I'd made a little boo boo. I'd advised Barb on my strategy, and sure enough, she got the Marriott for $25. I thought I had made my own reservation, too, but someone I'd forgotten. I think I mixed it up with another trip.

The night before my trip, I realized my mistake when sorting out all of our paperwork. In a panic, I immediately logged on and placed a bid of $25, putting my fate in the hands of William Shatner and the Priceline Super Computer. REJECTED!! Ouch!

Fortunately, a counter offer popped up. That is very rare; it has only happened to me once before out of all the times I've used Priceline. It advised me to bid $31, which I did, muttering, "Please be Marriott, please be Marriott," under my breath. The confirmation popped up: The Renaissance! Fortunately, the two hotels are in the same general area. I immediately contacted Happy Limo, which was scheduled to pick all of us up at the Marriott, and gave them my last minute change of plans. Fortunately they were able to make the change, and I was able to breathe a sigh of relief.

At any rate, now we were waiting for the shuttle, which was there within 10 or 15 minutes. Usually the Marriott's shuttle is packed, no matter how late it is, but we were the only people waiting for the Renaissance. As we left, we passed our friends waiting at the Marriott stop and headed to our "home" for the next 8 hours.

This was our first trip to FL since an ordinance was passed banning smoking in most indoor areas. What a relief to walk into a hotel lobby and not be assailed by the odor of smoke! We checked in, made our bleary-eyed way to our room, and fell asleep almost instantly.

Our pick-up the next morning was scheduled for 10 a.m. We always use Happy Limo because we like deciding when we will leave and having a private vehicle. We usually book a towncar, but since we had a larger group this time, we'd opted for a limo. We headed downstairs a few minutes early and found it already waiting. Then we swung over to the Marriott to pick up my friend Barb and her crew. We made a quick grocery stop (another advantage of taking a towncar or limo), and then we headed off to good old Port Canaveral.

The gorgeous stretch limo had cold soda and a TV/DVD player, so we watched "Snow Dogs" during the drive. We arrived at the terminal a little before 11:30, and it wasn't too crowded yet, which surprised me. I don't think the airport buses had started arriving yet. We passed through Security and headed to the Castaway Club check-in line, which is at the far end of the counters.

The CC line is not always the shortest, but we know most of the people who work it, so we always check in there. The port team has become like a family to us, and we love seeing them again as we kick off each of our cruises. Their warm greeting really starts things off right. Boarding typically starts early, so it wasn't long before we were passing through the giant mouse ears and off to another adventure.

The Staterooms
I am a creature of habit, and although I've stayed on almost every deck in a variety of staterooms and categories, I've found the staterooms that I like best and that's what I stick with now. Since we usually book our cruises a year in advance, that means I can usually get one of the staterooms that we prefer. You can request the stateroom of your choice, and DCL will be happy to oblige if it is available. Just remember that the most popular rooms, like the secret porthole rooms (Category 10 staterooms sold as inside, even though they have an obstructed view porthole) and the reclassified Category 7 rooms ("regular" verandah with a somewhat obstructed view, rather than a navigators verandah), go very quickly.

My favorite deck is 5, and my favorite stateroom is 5650, which I know almost as well as the rooms in my house. If I am not in there, check the secret porthole rooms at the forward end of the deck (5020 or 5520, as we don't like the connecting ones). On this trip, we were in my favorite, as far aft as possible. Deck 5 is also the lowest deck with verandah staterooms, which means they are closest to the water. I really enjoy that, as I like being as close to the ocean as possible. It's so relaxing to gaze down at the soothing blue water just a few decks below.

Our friends were in 6100, which is midship on the port side. They were very content there and said that there was no excessive noise or motion. They thoroughly enjoyed their verandah; on their first Disney cruise, they had an inside stateroom, so it was a real treat for them to be able to watch the sun rise as they enjoyed their morning coffee ourside in their pajamas.

I know how quickly a veranda can spoil people. I used to be content in an inside stateroom, but now I always go for the secret porthole rooms because I like at least like to have some light and a little view. With as often as we cruise, they're a great bargain. And of course, 5650 is the ultimate for me because of its large but cozy verandah, where I've spent many pleasant hours. I am so used to deck 5 now that I would probably be lost if I stayed anywhere else.

On this trip, I was really in the mood for some slow-paced relaxation time, so I made an extra effort to free up some quality verandah time. It is a tradition for hubby and I to have breakfast on our verandah on Nassau morning, and we also spend the Castaway Cay sailaway there before heading off to the Castaway Club party. If we're awake, we like to watch the ship dock at Nassau and Castaway Cay, too, and we also spend a few minutes before bed gazing out at the inky black sea and the stars shining like tiny pinpoints of light above. But on this trip, I scheduled some downtime at various parts of the day and relaxed on the verandah with a good book or simply closed my eyes and napped.

That's the great thing about a can be as active or as lazy as you want. There is always something going on, like a movie, a show, games, or activities, but sometimes you just want to kick back and relax. And although having your own verandah is nice, there are areas where you can go for fresh air even if you have an inside stateroom. The deck 7 aft public verandah and the comfy deck chairs on deck 4 are two of my favorites.

The only thing that was unpleasant this time was that we were next door to a chain smoker. 5650 only has a neighbor on one side, so your chances of this happening are considerably less than in a stateroom with two neighbors. Also, because the verandah is somewhat recessed, you usually won't smell the smoke as much even if you end up adjacent to a smoker. But this time, our neighbor was out there constantly (she was obviously a heavy smoker, and smoking in the staterooms is forbidden). And instead of smoking while sitting down, she always did it while leaning over the rail. She always leaned over on our side, which I couldn't figure out until hubby pointed out that that's the side where the ash tray is located. I am not afraid to speak up when someone is smoking where they're not supposed to, but in this case there wasn't much I could say, as the verandahs are a designated smoking area. Oh well, at least this is not a common occurrence, and I still managed to get a lot of enjoyment on our verandah despite the smoky cloud.

The Shows
Having cruised Disney over 30 times, we know "Hercules" and "Disney Dreams" quite well. But we never get tired of "Disney Dreams," and between the live shows and the showings on the stateroom televisions, we have probably seen it 40 times or more. The shows run on the stateroom t.v.'s in case you miss the live showing or if you just want to see it again. We don't have kids, but if we did, I think it would be great to tuck them in and let them drift off while watching the show again.. In addition to "Disney Dreams," we usually go to "Hercules," too, although we've occasionally skipped it. It's corny, but in a good, laugh-out-loud way, especially Pain, Panic, and Hades. When the third show was the game show "Who Wants to be a Mouseketeer," we eventually stopped going because we found it to be slow-moving.

This time we were in for a very special treat. It turned out that our 34th cruise was also the premiere of "The Golden Mickeys," the long-rumored and long-awaited new stage show! No more "Mousketeer" there are full-scale stage productions every night.

I must admit that I viewed this show with a very critical eye, as I was skeptical that anything could match my love for "Disney Dreams." But I have to admit, I was dazzled by this show! It was fabulous! The only thing I didn't like was that it went by much too quickly. I could have easily sat through it even if it were double the length.

Like "Disney Dreams," "The Golden Mickeys" is actually a compilation of numbers from several Disney movies. They are held together by a loose plot that involves an award show, which is supposed to be hosted by the Captain. Because of the awards show theme, things get started even before the show begins. Guests are greeted by a red carpet, just as though they are going to the Oscars or Emmys. There is even an interviewer chatting with people as they head into the theater, and those who are already inside can watch the action on jumbo screens.

As the show begins, it turns out that the Captain will now be hosting after all due to a slight mishap. The hosting task falls to a reluctant and nervous crew member named Ensign Bensen. Her confidence level is low, but she gets a boost from Roy E. Disney himself. Roy gives her a pep talk, citing the challenges faced by Walt in the early days of the Disney studio. I really enjoyed that part, as I love hearing about the history of Disney. Ensign Bensen finally agrees to give it a go, and she announces that the first winner is "Snow White."

I was amazed at how the clever use of screen backdrops and projection brought the cartoon world of "Snow White" vividly to life on the stage. There was a really cute ending to the number as kids from the audience portrayed the role of the dwarves.

Next up was Quasimodo from "Hunchback," quickly followed by Tarzan. I was thrilled when I realized that they were using "Son of Man," my favorite song from the movie, and the vine climbing was great to watch. There is also a "Mulan" sequence with a well-choreographed fight scene. This show reminded me of my favorite shows at Disney World. It was top quality all the way.

Terk and Elvis Stitch led a spirited rendition of "Trashin' the Camp," and then the villians took over. First was Ursula, portrayed by a clever combination of projection and real tentacles. Then came my personal favorite Disney "bad girl," Cruella. Of course, the villans never stick around for too long. Everyone's favorite characters from "Toy Story" did a salute to friendship, and then there was a sequence from "Sleeping Beauty." Watch the color changing dress. It's awesome! There is also a scene from the "Lion King" that reminded me so much of the Broadway show.

Since this is Disney, there is the requisite happy ending. Ensign Bensen has made it through, and the show closes with a rousing finale. It definitely left me wanting more! On this trip, hubby and I focused on getting lots of photos for our website (we take them without a flash because we don't want to be rude and disturb other members of the audience). I can hardly wait for our cruise in November so I can just relax and enjoy the show without worrying about capturing all the scenes. I know that the previous shows "Voyage of the Ghost Ship," "C'est Magique," and "Morty the Magnificent" got mixed reviews, but this one is 100 percent pure Disney, and I suspect that people will love it as much as "Disney Dreams." I know that I do!

We had linked our reservations with our friends so we be at the same table for dinner. Since we boarded the ship together, we had lunch together too. We ate our embarkation lunch in Parrot Cay (it is also served at Beach Blanket Buffet), and while we were there, we ordered the wine package for dinner. You can order it beforehand or at your dinner restaurant in the evening. Hubby has been wanted to try it for a long time, but you get a full bottle of wine each night and he can't drink a whole bottle himself (I only have a couple of sips, so I'm no help). But this time, since we had a group of people, he could finally try it.

There are actually two different wine packages to choose from, at two different price levels. When you purchase it, you are pre-payed for one bottle of wine per night, which you choose from the appropriate list. If you eat in Palo one night, you can have your bottle there. Hubby chose La Crema for the first bottle, and our companions liked it so much that they had it the second night too. They did get adventurous and try a different type the third night.

The embarkation buffet was as delicious as always. I enjoy all the salads and the fresh carved meat (which usually varies between lamb and beef). Hubby is a huge fan of the cold jumbo shrimp, and he always embarrasses me when he piles his plate so high that he can barely see over it to make it back to the table. In Parrot Cay, servers will bring you your beverage of choice. Upstairs in Beach Blanket, you get your own beverage at the end of the buffet line.

That first lunch is just the prelude to a weekend of delicious and decadent meals. You rotate through three restaurants (Triton's, Animators Palate, and Parrot Cay), but we skipped Animators in order to go to Palo. Normally I recommend NOT skipping that one if you've never seen the show, but since we've cruised so many times and our friends have seen it once already, we all agreed that we wanted to eat in Palo on Nassau night. I had also been in touch with someone on the internet who was sailing alone with her child, so I invited her to join us too. We all met up at the restaurant, became instant friends, and had a great time.

Barb's son Michael had just turned 18 this year, so this was the first time that he was able to participate in the adult activities. He really enjoyed his meal at Palo (and I think he also liked the opportunity to sneak some of mom's wine). Partway into the meal, our new friend's daughter paged her from the kids club to be picked up. Happily, our server was able to send her off with a doggie bag so she could still enjoy her meal. The rest of us ended up sticking around so long that we closed the place down. The wine was flowing freely, and everyone was in a rolicking good mood. A tiff broke out over the chocolate souffle sauce, but that was resolved when an extra pitcher was brought. Then another fight broke out over possession of the pitcher!

All in all, we had a great time. Usually we eat alone as a couple at Palo, and I know that a lot of people like that. It can definitely be a nice, romantic experience. But for hubby and I, we eat together every day, so we enjoy being in a group when we're on board the ship. On our first night, which was in Triton's, it was us and our friends at the table. Then we all ate at Palo, and on the last night, in Parrot Cay, it was our group plus another couple who had missed dinner the first night (which was probably just as well, as there were battles over the grand mariner sauce at dessert that might have frightened them away). I'll admit that we had a rowdy table, but we had a real blast and I got some great blackmail photos to bring home with me. A tip: If you are sailing with a co-worker, be sure to keep your camera close at hand, especially when the wine is flowing.

There were some minor changes to the menus. Most of them seemed to be aimed at making the Wonder's offerings the same as the Magic's. The only one that disappointed me was the removal of the sea bass from the Triton's menu. That has been a favorite of mine and hubby's for years. But unfortunately, sea bass is endangered, so Disney replaced it with white fish. The new fish was still pretty good, as it is prepared the same way, but the sea bass was superior. I can see why it's endangered if it tastes so good. The prime rib wasn't on the menu at Parrot Cay, but it was offered as a special. I hope they don't take it away completely because it is excellent.

The Spa
The spa is an integral part of any trip for hubby and I. We work hard at home, so when we cruise, our main focus is relaxation and escape from the daily grind. To me, there is no better way to relax than under the hands of a skilled masseuse. Hubby sticks with seaweed wraps and traditional massages. I like both of those, too, but I also enjoy reflexology and the Absolute Face & Body treatment (a massage/facial combo). We also like the surial bath (a couples experience that I describe in detail elsewhere on my website), although we skipped it on this trip. It's always a challenge to balance everything we want to do in the spa with all the other activities that we want to do on the ship and island. We're in the spa so much that most of the people who work there know us by now and give us a warm welcome.

I had talked Barb into trying the Absolute Face & Body, and she also managed to convince her husband to try a massage and reflexology. She thought he would especially enjoy having his feet pampered since he is a marathon runner. Myself, I had an Absolute Face & Body, too, and I also combined reflexology with a massage. Hubby stuck to massages and seaweed wraps. It took me literally years to convince him to try a wrap, and I finally talked him into it when we did our three-peat (three Wonder cruises in a row) in Aug./Sept. of 2002. Now I am sorry that I did it, as he wants a seaweed wrap practically every day that we're on board!

You might be wondering what is so special about the seaweed treatment. After all, it might sound a bit icky to be covered from neck to toe in a warm seaweed mixture. But take it from me, it's awesome! Once the mix is slathered all over your body, you are wrapped up like a baked potato, topped off with a warm comforter, and allowed to bake and detoxify while receiving a head or foot massage. When you emerge from your cocoon, the cold air will be a shock but you will feel so good and detoxified! It really sweats the toxins right out of your body. After your treatment, you shower off and get a traditional massage as the grand finale. Hubby swears by the bath salts that are sold on the ship, and whenever he uses them, our whole house smells like the spa. I knew that if he likes those, he'd LOVE the seaweed wrap, and unfortunately I was right.

I haven't managed to talk him into trying the Absolute Face & Body, as I can't convince him that facials are not just for women. Oh well, it's probably just as well or else he'd want one of those every trip too. For me, the AF&B is the ultimate treatment. I was introduced to it on a Royal Caribbean ship, as RCCL also has Steiner spas. I asked for the longest, most decadent treatment, and that's what they gave me. I've been doing it ever since. The facial is really long and luxurious, and my skin feels like it's baby soft and glowing afterwards. I love the fruit active mask, and usually I get so relaxed that I drift off to sleep. Often the seaweed wrap puts me to sleep, too, and believe me, it's quite a shock to wake up, not realize where you are, and suddenly realize that you're all wrapped up!

Kodak Moments
On a Disney ship, you would expect to find a lot of photo opportunities with the characters, and you won't be disappointed. The opportunities typically start in the port and continue throughout your cruise. There are scheduled events, such as the princess party and the farewell on the last night, and Mickey and his friends will also show up in various places around the ship and also on Castaway Cay.

Keep your camera on hand, and rest assured that the ship photographers will also be on hand to capture the moment. Have them take photos as often as you can, as it doesn't cost anything unless you decide to purchase the picture. Besides the character greetings, you will also have a chance to have pictures taken with various backdrops. On the island, the characters can often be found in the gazebo near Cookies (in the morning, they are often on the main path too). There are also some good non-character island photo ops, such as the spot with the ship in the background and the "Fresh Catch" backdrop. The photographers also wander around the island taking various candid shots on the beach.

It's great fun to visit Shutters in the evening and find all of your photos. Each day's pictures are put out on display, so it may take some looking to find yours. But once you do, you'll find that the search is worth it. Everyone has their favorite photo opportunities; mine are the Castaway Cay shot with the ship in the background and the embarkation photo. Our bedroom is a virtual showcase of my favorite Shutters shots. I like to look at them whenever I'm feeling homesick for the Wonder.

Even though we've technically been to Nassau over 30 times, I can count on my fingers the number of times that hubby and I have actually disembarked. If you've never been there, I recommend that you check it out. Take one of the shore excursions if you prefer a structured experience. Otherwise, the shopping area is within easy walking distance of the ship. Just be aware that you will be solicited for braiding, to buy cigars, to take a carriage ride, and for many other things. Some of the merchants can be quite aggressive, so be sure you're comfortable with saying a firm "No, thanks." The sales pressure is compounded in the Straw Market, where t-shirts, straw purses, and all sorts of souvenir-type items are sold. Always bargain with the merchants there, and know your prices so you know when you're getting a good deal.

But once you've been through all that a few times, it gets old. Now, I prefer to stay on the ship and see a movie, use the uncrowded pools, and enjoy some quality verandah time. I just pretend that it's a day at sea.

Barb and her family had only been to Nassau once before, and they had their handicapped son with them on that trip, so they couldn't do too much exploring. This time, they headed into town after their morning spa appointments. At dinner, they reported that they'd had quite a good time. They did lots of exploring, and Michael was tickled with the fact that he was of legal drinking age, so his mom let him indulge in a beer. Then he bought a DVD of the movie "S.W.A.T." from a street vendor. At the time, the movie was still in theatrical release, so his dad chided him that it was probably going to be blank when he got home. All in all, they had quite am enjoyable time on the island, while we had fun on the ship. No matter whether you stay on board or go off on an adventure, you can have a fun day.

Castaway Cay
While the Nassau stop is a non-entity for us, we never get tired of the tropical paradise known as Castaway Cay. It's the sort of island that people conjure up in their daydreams, with beaches like powdered sugar and inviting turquoise water. In 34 cruises, we've never been completely rained out on the island, and most of the time we've been blessed with perfect or near perfect weather. The only time we've ever skipped Castaway Cay was when the adult pool was closed for maintenance, causing the crew pool to be opened for adults. Hubby and I had always vowed that we would stay on board one day so we could do a report for those who don't like the beach (believe it or not, we've met many people who prefer to stay on board). But it took a major act of willpower, and now that we've done it once, I doubt we'll ever skip the island again unless there is a monsoon.

On this trip, the weather was almost perfect. It was a bit muggy, but not intolerable, and the water temperature was just right for swimming. Hubby and I were off the ship by 9 a.m. and heading over to the adult beach. We staked out a nice, shady spot with extra chairs for my friend and her family, as we figured they'd be along soon. The only bad thing about the adult beach is the extremely limited number of hammocks (4). If you're not on the very first tram, your chance of getting one is virtually nil. There are a lot more on the family beach, but the number on the adult beach has dwindled quite a bit over the years. I hope that eventually Disney will put some more out there, as they are a great place to take a nap or to settle in with a good book.

But there are plenty of beach chairs, so even though we weren't the first ones on the beach, we still found a nice shady place to sit. On a previous trip, I was badly bitten by sand fleas while reading on a lounge chair, so now we bring insect repellant and dose the chairs liberally before sitting down. So far, that has prevented any more problems. Be sure to keep slathering yourself with sunscreen, too, especially if you are ghost-white like me. The tropical sun can really sneak up on you, and by the end of the day, we see lots of people looking like boiled lobsters as they head back to the ship. Just in case you forget, I recommend packing some of the aloe vera after-sun lotion with lidocaine, which really helps to ease the discomfort of a burn.

The tide was in at the adult beach, so the water was quite deep. Hubby headed off to snorkel, while I did some water jogging. Often I have to force myself to exercise, but motivation is never a problem when I'm jogging in the ocean. As an added treat, several stingrays gracefully drifted by.

Barb and her family showed up later, as they had disembarked later than they planned. They were having so much fun chatting with their breakfast tablemates in Tritons that they'd lost track of time. We all sat around, took a dip, chatted, and enjoyed Konk Koolers. Then hubby and I headed off for a late lunch at Cookies. Minnie Mouse and Captain Hook were around for photos, so we posed with them before getting our food. I topped off my meal of grilled chicken, ribs, and salads with some frozen cookie dough yogurt, while hubby went on a lobster burger binge.

Of course, if you don't want to leave the adult beach, food is served there too. The spread is quite a bit smaller than Cookies, but you definitely won't suffer. There are items like salads, fresh fruit, grilled chicken, salmon, and burgers, and my favorite frozen yogurt is served there too.

Although we took it relatively easy on this trip, there are plenty of activities if you are ambitious. There are various types of self-propelled watercraft for rent (I'm partial to the kayaks myself), and you can also do a banana boat ride or parasail (hubby has done both and has thoroughly enjoyed the experiences). There are also some new excursions that we plan to try, such as snorkeling in the open ocean and a kayak trip through the mangroves.

We headed back to the ship a little early, but our friends stayed ashore until the last possible minute, I can't say I blame them! I love Castaway Cay; the only thing I don't like about it is that when the ship pulls away, I realize that the cruise is almost over. But at least I know that I'll be back soon.

The Castaway Club Party
If you are a returning cruiser, you will receive an invitation to the Castaway Club party. You also get a gift and pins, which are waiting for you in your stateroom when you board. On the three night cruise, the party is typically held right after the sailaway from Castaway Cay. Its location depends on the number of return cruisers on board. Usually it's in the Cadillac Lounge, but sometimes it's in Barrel of Laughs or Wavebands, and when it's particularly large, it spreads to multiple clubs.

On this trip, for the first time that I can remember, it was held in Studio Sea. It was the usual enjoyable bash, with a lovely ice sculpture gracing a table laden with yummy appetizers and sweets. There are items like little mini pizzas, chicken tenders, cheese sticks, and various hors d'ouvres. You can also choose an alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverage from the variety offered by the servers. The party also offers a chance to chat with many of the ship's officers and to even meet the captain himself, so be sure to bring your camera.

If you hang out on the DIS boards, the Castaway Club party is also a good place to meet up with other internet junkies who are on the same cruise, provided that they are returning cruisers. We always wear t-shirts with my website on the back, and we meet online friends almost every time. On this trip, we ended up staying quite late chatting with people even after the party had officially ended

Till We Meet Again
"Till We Meet Again" is a farewell event held on the final evening. We don't always get a chance to attend because we have the late dinner seating, which sometimes runs long. But this time, we made it and I'm so glad that we did. This event features lots of Disney characters coming out into the crowd for photos, as well as performers from the mail stage show, such as Hades, Phil, Peter Pan, and Ann Marie. This time, there were also some new characters from "The Golden Mickeys," such as Mulan. I was hoping to see Elvis Stitch, but no such luck. But we still managed to get some great shots with a number of the characters.

This event is very informal, and it is the luck of the draw on which characters you will be near. You won't be able to maneuver much because the atrium is packed, and I emphasize the word PACKED. People stand literally shoulder to shoulder, and the characters come out into the crowd and fan out so that there are some in every area. Then, after some individual photo op time, they all climb the staircase in front of Triton's and turn in each direction so that everyone can get a good group photo, and pixie dust drops down on the crowd. It's a fun and fitting way to end a whirlwind weekend.

Homeward Bound
Although our friends were heading home immediately, we had extended our trip by a day, since Monday was Labor Day. I never turn down any opportunity to stay in Florida a bit longer. Hubby and I had kept our luggage with us rather than put it out to be delivered to the terminal. If you have a lot of bags, letting Disney bring them down for you is your best bet. They have a colored tag system that makes them relatively easy to find. Also, it saves you the bother of having to lug them with you to breakfast.

But I do suggest marking your luggage prominently, as we once had someone take our bags by mistake. Now they are marked with huge stripes of colored duct tape, as well as ponytail holders cable-tied to the handles. It looks silly, but it's definitely effective.

However, if you are a light packer, are planning to skip breakfast, or want to save a little time, keep your bags with you rather than putting them out the night before for pick-up. We usually don't go to breakfast because we're tired of food by the end of the cruise. Instead, we sleep in a bit.

Disembarkation was as painless as usual. I wish that the other cruise lines would learn from Disney. Royal Caribbean passes out colored luggage tags and then forces you to wait until your tag color is called before you can leave the ship. That might sound fairly simple, but the wait for your color to be called can literally be hours long! With Disney, you simply walk off when you are ready. You can base your disembarkation time on your dining time by going to your assigned breakfast, or you can choose your own time and either grab a bite at the buffet or just skip the food altogether and leave whenever you want.

We had our identification ready and headed down the gangway, pausing to say goodbye to Captain Henry, who was bidding farewell to the guests at the door. Customs was a breeze, and soon we were heading out the door and across the street to the pick-up area.

We were meeting up with Barb and her family so we could all ride back to Orlando together. They were running a bit late, and we were running early. Soon, the limo pulled up and hubby and I piled in. I called our travelling companions on their cell phone to make sure they knew where to find the limos and discovered that they were on their way.

Once in the limo, Michael realized that he could try out his "S.W.A.T." DVD, since there was a player. We were all betting that it would be blank, or that at best it would contain something else. Amazingly, it did indeed contain the movie he'd been promised, and it was a very good quality copy! I don't recommend buying that sort of thing in Nassau, but it was quite a surprise.

As we headed away from Port Canaveral, I felt my usual pang of sadness. But it was tempered with the fact that at least we were spending another day in Florida, and our next cruise wasn't too far off. There were so many people onboard who made our trip special, from the staff of Shutters to the dining room manager to Linsay, Morgan, and many others who are too numerous to name.

Usually the holidays seem to come way too fast, but since #35 was scheduled for Thanksgiving weekend, I knew that I wouldn't mind so much this year because their fast arrival would mean that I would soon be back on the Wonder.

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