Saturday, June 12, 2004

Trip Report #35, Thanksgiving 2003 on the Wonder

Ever since the Wonder set sail, it has been out tradition to spend Thanksgiving at sea. The terminal and the ship are always festively decorated, and it's a great way to kick off the holiday season. This year, we were also in for a new treat: for the first time ever, Castaway Cay had also been transformed into a Christmas wonderland. This has been a year of "firsts" for us, such as the Fourth of July fireworks and the debut of the "Golden Mickeys" show on our last trip. That's one of the things we love about Disney. They never settle for the status quo; they are constantly dreaming up new surprises.

But I don't want to get ahead of myself, as that was on the last day of the cruise, and so much happened before that. It's amazing how much fun and how many experiences can be crammed into three short days. As much as I love Castaway Cay, I always find arriving there a bit melancholy because I know that I'm less than 24 hours away from arriving home in Port Canaveral.

The Busiest Travel Weekend of the Year
The trip ends in Port Canaveral and starts there, too, but for hubby and I, the journey really starts in Chicago. As usual, we had booked our outbound flight for the night before our cruise. Thanksgiving weekend is known as the busiest travel weekend of the year, and I am a compulsive planner, so I built lots of extra time into our schedule to allow for any potential delays. I'd rather get to the airport early and have to sit around at the gate than leave late, get stuck in traffic, and feel my stress level rise as precious minutes tick away and the chances of making my flight grow slim.

Hubby had taken a vacation day, so he had everything ready when I got home from work.. We loaded my Aztek Canyonero, did a last minute pet check, and were on the road with time to spare. We fly ATA out of Midway, and hubby had checked us in online that morning, which is a real time saver. But a word of caution: ATA still hasn't ironed all the bugs out of their online check in process. We usually change our seats to an exit row or bulkhead, and we've had trouble with getting them to honor our boarding passes because they erroneously assign our seats to someone else at the airport. Generally I can get them to honor my pass, since I got the seats 24 hours in advance and it was ATA's mistake to give them to someone else. But it takes a lot of arguing, and I've even had to call their Web Check In Help Desk on my cell phone and have the phone person argue with a supervisor at the gate. Fortunately, this didn't happen on the way out this time (the trip home is another story, but I'll get to that later).

Hubby and I debated whether to take Cicero or Pulaski. We live south of the airport, and Cicero is closer, but Pulaski can be faster when the traffic is bad. We opted for the more direct route, and although Cicero was busy, the traffic was keeping a slow but steady pace that got us to Midway in a reasonable amount of time. We park at Midway Park Savers, an offsite lot across from the Orange Line entrance, so we turn off before reaching the main part of the airport where the backups can be very bad. I like being able to walk to the airport vs.taking a shuttle bus, and there is a "One Day Free" coupon for the lot on ATA's website. The parking spots are pretty tight, but I can usually find one to maneuver my Canyonero into with too much trouble.

As we turned off Cicero, I breathed a sigh of relief because the parking lot was only a few blocks ahead. I said to hubby, "That wasn't bad at all!" He was just about to agree when we noticed that traffic was at a standstill. The parking lot is right before a set of train tracks, and there was a freight train chugging along. The cars were stopped just far enough back to prevent us from making it to the parking lot gate. So close but yet so far!

We waited for about 10 minutes while the turtle train crawled by. Finally, it ended and we were able to drive those last few feet to the parking lot entrance. I had been worried that the lot would be full; to my amazement, we got the second spot by the entrance! I couldn't believe my luck. Usually on a normal day I end up parking about halfway down. Now, on the day before Thanksgiving, I wind up with a primo spot! Hubby and I gathered our bags, headed across the street, and joined the stream of salmon heading from the trains to the terminal building.

Usually, there are only one or two other parties walking to the terminal, but this time the stream of humanity seemed endless. I was wondering how bad the ticket counter and security lines would be, but when we got into the airport, we found that lines were virtually non-existent. Before we knew it, we were through security and on our way to the gate to await our flight to Orlando. We were on our usual flight, which leave some time between 8 and 8:30 p.m. and gets in between 11:30 p.m. and midnight (ATA likes to vary the exact time). Even though the late arrival is rough, I prefer to fly out a night ahead because Chicago's weather can be so unpredictable and there is always the potential for mechanical problems or other delays, too. In the past, we've experienced a six-hour diversion due to storms and a ten-hour delay due to fog. Fortunately, neither of those was on a cruise trip, but I've learned to be cautious. When I've got a ship to catch, I want to allow as much of a cushion as possible.

The plane was a bit late coming in from Vegas, so that made us a bit late in boarding. But soon enough we were settled into the huge 757-300 (my favorite type of aircraft, although getting that large of a plane off the ground at Midway is nothing short of miraculous) and winging our way to Orlando. I was sitting in the row behind hubby, but since there was no seat in front of me, I could easily lean forward to chat with him.

Lately, our flights have been very quiet and uneventful, but this time I was in front of the Restless Smoker and next to the Wrestling Couple. I knew that the woman behind me was going through Nicotine Withdrawal because she begged her companion, "Give me a cigarette! NOW! I won't smoke it, I swear. I just need to hold it." She rattled, kicked, and poked my seat the whole way to Orlando. Finally I reclined, figuring that if I was going to be jostled for two hours, I might was well suffer through it in comfort. She did provide me with one of my favorite quotes of the trip. She was talking to someone on a cell phone while waiting for take off and informed them, "The time zone in Orlando is about one and a half hours different than the time in Chicago." I'm not sure when that extra 30 minutes snuck in!

The Wrestling Couple next to me were fairly subdued for most of the trip. But as soon as we started our initial descent, they launched into a smackdown that never ceased until we parked at the gate. I thought I was going to end up with one of them in my lap. Smack, poke, punch, push...they would have done well in the WWF. Between them and the woman behind me, my fellow passengers were more entertaining than the in-flight videos.

Over the River and Through the Woods, to Mickey's Ship We Go
Flying in the night before gave us the opportunity for a good night's sleep. Even with our late arrival, we were able to sleep in a little. We arranged for Happy Limo to pick us up at 10:00 a.m. for the journey to Port Canaveral. That's what I like about taking a towncar; you choose your own pick up time and have a nice private vehicle to yourself. You can also have a free grocery stop, which we often use. After I had made our reservation for 10, I read on the DIS boards that embarkation now starts at 11:45 (it used to be sometime between 12:15 and 12:30). I debated an earlier pick up, but decided that the extra sleep would be more valuable.

Traffic wasn't bad, so even with a grocery stop, we arrived at the port around 11. Our driver told us that Happy Limo recently got a stretch Hummer. I can only imagine the size! Once we had pulled in, we had to wait a few minutes for a spot to open up in the drop off area on the side of the terminal building. Soon enough, we were able to pull up. A porter took our luggage for later delivery to our stateroom. The security line to enter the terminal was minimal, and then we were on our way upstairs to check in.

I noticed that the catchphrase "The Disney Difference" is being used a lot by DCL lately. I can vouch for the fact that there is a BIG difference in the embarkation process. Boarding Royal Caribbean's Radiance of the Seas to go to Alaska was a nightmare. You literally waited in line to get a number to get into the check in line. Then you were herded into another line to get another number and be placed in a group for boarding. The whole thing was totally disorganized, so nobody knew where to go or what numbers were being called. We suffered through well over an hour of confusion before finally getting to the boarding area, only to discover that hubby's key card didn't work. Then we waited another half an hour while they found someone who could fix it. Ugh!

Contrast that with the Disney process: check in at your resort if you are on a package, or else head over to one of the vast expanse of check in counters, where there is typically little or no crowd because they are fully staffed. Then head over to the boarding line and wait until it's time to pass through the giant Mickey ears to begin your vacation. The RCCL waiting area was a warehouse-like room with folding chairs. The DCL terminal has couches and televisions, as well as many things to look at, like a model of the ship. Disney characters have been known to pay a visit too. One person in your party can hold your place in line while the others explore, and you can even buy coffee or another beverage at R. E. Fresh's.

Over time, we've become friends with several people at the port. We love being welcomed by Tanya, Barbara, and the rest of the excellent port crew. We chatted with them a bit and didn't even realize how quickly the time was slipping away. Before we knew it, it was 11:45 a.m. and boarding had begun!

As we stepped up for our embarkation photo, we saw that there is a new backdrop. It is tan colored for an old time look, with a scene of people (and Mickey) waving farewell on the decks of a ship, sort of like the sailaway scene in Titanic. It matches the folders that the Shutters photos come in. It's hard to describe, but I really loved it and had to buy the photo. A picture is worth a thousand words, so I'll post a scan on the Shutters page of my website. I have a lot of different embarkation photos, and this one is my favorite.

I like the new earlier embarkation time, although I'm sure it's a challenge for the crew to get the ship turned over so quickly. Palo and spa reservations are taken at one, so if you arrive at the port early, you'll have plenty of time for a leisurely lunch before the "ressie scramble." If you arrive later, you'll still have time to get the reservations made and then eat lunch before the safety drill at 4 p.m. Of course, the times are subject to change, so check your information sheet when you board the ship.

Spa reservations are taken at the Vista Spa on deck 9 forward. On this trip, Palo ressies were taken in Wavebands on deck 3 forward, although the location sometimes varies. Since they both start at the same time, it's wise to send a different member of your party to each location. The Palo process is very organized, with tables labeled for each day. Dining rotation changes can also be requested in Wavebands. Our friend Ali, the dining manager, was there, assisting guests with their various requests.

We had lunch at Parrot Cay, where I was greeted warmly by Katrina and Lito, two of our former servers. It always amazes me that they can remember us. Hubby piled his plate with jumbo shrimp, while I opted for salads and carved beef. We both had the delicious cold strawberry banana soup...mmmmm!

Between lunch and the ressie scramble, it can feel a bit hectic when you board, but things settle down very quickly. If you like the water, be sure to pack swimsuits in your day bag because embarkation is one of the best times to enjoy the pools and whirlpools. It is our tradition to don our swimwear and soak in one of the adult whirlpools until safety drill time. At first, we were the only ones in the whirlpool, but as the afternoon wore on, more and more people joined us. We had some very pleasant conversations with our fellow travelers until we reluctantly had to leave because it was almost four o'clock.

One word of caution: if you plan to use the hot tubs for any length of time, bring a swimsuit that you don't mind getting faded. The chemicals are wicked; hubby once had a navy blue suit fade out to orange, and I have a pair of pink tie-dyed shorts that started out as solid purple. Now, we have "special" suits that we use strictly for the whirlpools, and we save our good swimwear for Castaway Cay.

Back Home Again
Our home for this trip, as usual, was stateroom 5650, a secluded Category 6 cabin that is as far aft as it's possible to get on deck 5. Stateroom size is another Disney Difference. On many cruise lines, the staterooms border on being closet sized, even in the more expensive categories. That's especially true on the older ships, but even on Radiance and RCCL's Voyager, one of their new mega-ships, we were amazed at the lack of space in the rooms as compared to the Magic and Wonder.

On Disney's ships, your stateroom will be the same size whether you are in Category 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, or 5. The only difference is the presence or absence of a porthole or verandah. Cats. 11 and 12 are somewhat smaller, but still generous for the cruise line industry. Cat. 4 is a family room, which is a little longer, and Cats. 3, 2, and 1 are multi-room concierge suites that are larger than my first apartment!

I've had people ask whether the service suffers if you are in a cheaper category. The answer is a resounding no! Other than the fact that concierge service is limited to the top three categories, you will get the exact same service whether you're in Category 4 or 12. The Cat. 10, 11, and 12 staterooms are right across the hall from Cat. 9, 8, 7, 6, and 5 staterooms (Cat. 4s are on deck 8, where there the staterooms are all on one side). This means that a Cat. 11 room will have the same stateroom host or hostess as the Cat. 5 or 6 across the way. All staterooms are cleaned twice a day and receive turndown service, complete with chocolates and towel animals. You're in for the same first class service no matter what category you book.

Another Disney difference that families with small children really appreciate is that virtually all of the staterooms have a bathtub (the handicapped rooms are the exception, as they have a roll-in shower). Most ships have showers only, but I've talked to many parents who like to have a tub for bathing their little ones.

As I mentioned, 5650 is a Cat. 6 stateroom, meaning that it has a verandah. Most of the Cat. 6 and 5 verandahs are similar, but the aft-most staterooms have solid metal instead of a plexiglass rail, and some (like 5650) have a larger than average balcony.

People often ask, "What is the best stateroom?" The word "best" is vary subjective and is different for almost everyone. You have to determine what is most important to you. Do you like being near the elevators? Would you rather be in a more secluded spot? Does hallway noise bother you? Do you need adjoining staterooms? Are you sensitive to motion? Do you like upper decks, or would you rather be closer to the water? These are just a few of the considerations that should go into choosing your ideal room.

If you party into the wee hours of the night, a room under the nightclubs might not bother you, but a family with small children who crash early might hate it. Being near the elevators is convenient but can also mean more hallway traffic (although I've been near them a couple of times and have never noticed excessive noise). Being next door to a stateroom that sleeps four or next to adjoiners can mean more potential noise since they might be occupied by larger families (we learned this being next to the adjoining secret porthole rooms). In contrast, a stateroom that only has a neighbor on one side, like 5622, may be quieter.

5650 has only one neighbor, plus it's at the end of the hallway and there are no staterooms across from it, so there is virtually no hallway sound. I like that, as we usually sleep in on Nassau morning and then go to bed early so we're up with the sunrise on Castaway Cay day. I also like being as close to the water as possible, and deck 5 is the lowest deck with verandahs. The larger verandah is the icing on the cake; I know that some people don't like the solid metal verandahs, but it makes no difference to me.

The majority of people I've talked to seem to favor mid-ship, and I've met lots of forward fans as well. But I'm a major aft fan myself, and I've met many others like me. I've stayed on almost every deck in various areas, but aft has won me over.

Even though there were lots of large families on board for the holidays, which means more potential for hallway noise, 5650 was an oasis of peace and quiet as usual. We slept late with no disturbances and spent many relaxing hours lazing out on the verandah. Our stateroom host, Jhony, kept the room clean and left us an amusing towel animal each night. One of our former hosts was servicing the rooms at the head of the hall, so each time we passed through the hall, we got two greetings. We've been in 5650 so often now that I've lost count, and I always enjoy staying in my "home away from home."

Decadent Dining
Hubby and I have been dieting since the summer, but on a cruise we give ourselves permission to indulge. I don't think a person can stick to dietary constraints if they never splurge once in awhile. The trick is not to use the splurge as an excuse to get off your eating plan entirely.

Another new discovery on this trip was that the menus have changed again. The changes are relatively minor, and most were for the better, like the addition of cold mango/papaya soup at Parrot Cay (yum!). I was very sad to see that the cold avocado soup was gone, but at least the vichyssoises is still offered in Triton's. We'll post the new menus with full details of all the current offerings.

We were on the Tritons/Animators/Parrot Cay dining rotation. Rotational dining is another Disney difference. Instead of eating in the same restaurant every night, you rotate through three different ones, and your dining staff rotates with you. Our servers, Arnold and Marian, took excellent care of us and indulged all our special requests. Our head server was Stephanie, who we're never met before; turns out she just came over recently from the Magic. It's always fun to meet new crew members, as they quickly become old friends. Speaking of which, one of our former head servers, Kapoor, was also on our rotation.

We really enjoyed our tablemates; they were a couple from Orlando and a family from Celebration. The only thing that I regretted was that we had to give up one night in a main diningroom to go to Palo. The three day cruise is too darned short!

Our friend Chef Vinnie was onboard on this trip. If you are on the four-day cruise, be sure to go to the cooking demonstration and you might see him. His scallops are sensational!

We went to Palo on Nassau night, as it's very enjoyable to eat with the city lights as a backdrop. Our server, Nico, was from Italy, which fit in nicely with the theme, and he took great care of us. Along with my veal (the special of the day), he talked me into trying the gnocchi, which he promised would be just like his Mama makes. They were very delicious. Hubby opted for tuna, and it was prepared just the way he likes it...seared on the outside and pink on the inside. Of course, he is a sushi fan, but if I want something rare, I'll stick with beef or lamb.

For dessert, I had the famous chocolate souffle, while hubby opted for the pistachio torte, with panna cotta on the side. So much for diets! I think we must have consumed an entire week's worth of calories in one meal, but it was well worth it.

Ivan, the manager, was making the rounds to be sure that everything was going smoothly. The food and service were both top notch; Chef Patrick is doing his usual excellent job.

Of course, we didn't suffer too badly at our regular rotation restaurants either. At Triton's, I had my beloved vichyssoises, and since it was Thanksgiving, I had the special turkey dinner with all the trimmings. In Parrot Cay, hubby had the Mixed Grill, which has changed a bit and is every bit as delicious as its previous incarnation. I ordered it with lamb chops only (it usually comes with beef and sausage too) and slathered them with mint jelly. Even though the mango/papaya soup is technically an appetizer, I had that as my dessert.

There are some changes to the breakfast and lunch offerings, too. The new breakfast items in Triton's (special pancakes and French toast) are not printed on the menu yet, but hopefully they will be by our next cruise. At Beach Blanket Buffet, home of the famous Mickey waffles, they are still offering made to order omelets, and they have added something new for lunch: in addition to made to order pasta, they also serve fresh crepes with your choice of sauces and fruit fillings.

I am going to have to check out the new Triton's items, but in the morning I am typically lazy and order room service to enjoy on my verandah. On this trip, I finally met Morgan, who I've talked to on the phone when placing my order for goodness only knows how many cruises. Before we sailed, I had heard he was working in the dining room, but now he is back in room service and doing deliveries. It was fun to finally meet the man behind the voice. I think he probably knows my usual order by heart now.

At dinner, I usually don't pay much attention to the attire of my fellow cruisers. I like to dress up, but I don't really care what other people do. However, on the DIS boards, dress codes are a very controversial matter. Many people feel that the no jeans/no shorts suggestion should be strictly enforced. I'm sure they will be happy to know that Palo now has a sign requesting that no jeans or shorts be worn there. I don't know if it's enforced, but on this trip people were quite dressy. There was no one attired like my two favorites that I spotted on previous cruises (the barefoot woman in jeans and the fashion plate couple with the husband in jeans and a flamingo pink t-shirt while his wife wore a muumuu and flip-flops).

The main diningrooms don't have signs, although there is a "no jeans or shorts" request in the Navigators. Perhaps it was due to the holiday, but I was amazed to see people a lot more dressed up than usual at Triton's and Parrot Cay. I remember a couple of Thanksgivings ago, when I wore a formal dress to Triton's, which is supposed to be the most dressy restaurant, and discovered that I was totally overdressed as compared to my fellow cruisers. This time, my dresses fit right in.

It's Showtime!
Disney is synonymous with entertainment, and you're in for a real treat with the main stage shows on the Wonder. The two old standbys are "Hercules" and "Disney Dreams," both of which have been around since the inception of the cruise line. The first couple of times I saw "Hercules," I wasn't too fond of it, although hubby loved it. Now that I've seen the movie, the cornball humor always gets me laughing. Lately, Hades, Pain and Panic have been stealing the show.

I've always loved "Disney Dreams" from the very first time I saw it. We've missed "Hercules" a few times, but we make it a point never to miss DD. As the cruise director says, it's Disney's kiss good night to the audience. It features characters and songs from a variety of Disney movies, including "Cinderella," "Beauty and the Beast," "The Little Mermaid" (my favorite sequence), "Aladdin" (my second favorite), and "The Lion King." The plot revolves around a little girl named Anne Marie, who meets Peter Pan and has to find her own magic so she can fly away with him to the place where dreams come true. As I'm sure you can guess, there is a happy Disney ending. My favorite part is when Tinkerbelle covers the ship in pixie dust at the end.

"Disney Dreams" is hubby's favorite (he's even confessed that it makes him misty eyed), but I must admit that I was won over by "The Golden Mickeys" on our last cruise, and I loved it just as much this time around. "The Golden Mickeys" is a brand new show that just debuted on the Wonder Labor Day weekend. It is structured like "Disney Dreams," with a loose plot acting as the thread that binds together a series of sequences from popular Disney movies and cartoons. In this show, the plot involves Ensign Benson, who reluctantly agrees to host the show despite a lack of confidence. She gets a boost from Roy Disney himself, although now that he has resigned, I'm guessing that the beginning might change. I hope that it doesn't change too much because it's my favorite part of the show. Roy tells Ensign Benson the story of his Uncle Walt as old-time clips roll on the screen. He explained how Walt's first creation, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, was stolen from him and how he fell on hard financial times, but through it all he never lost hope.

That beginning is so cool. I love to hear about the history of Disney and see the old footage of Walt. One of our dinner tablemates said it actually brought her to tears. Then the show shifts to numbers highlighting various themes, such as Romance, Comedy, Friendship, and of course, Villians, as Ensign Benson hands out the awards...or at least tries to. The numbers include Snow White (with kids from the audience playing the seven dwarves), Hunchback of Notre Dame, Mulan, Tarzan (featuring my favorite song from the movie, "Son of Man"; this sequence will remind you of the Tarzan Rocks show at the Animal Kingdom), 101 Dalmations, Toy Story, Sleeping Beauty, the Lion King (the costumes will remind you of the Broadway play), Pocahontas, and Lady and the Tramp.

Terk also comes out to lead a rousing rendition of "Trashin' the Camp," featuring my all-time favorite character, Stitch (okay, second-favorite character, as Figment will always be number one with me). When the villians take over, you'll be amazed at the life-like Ursula. We were sitting in the front row, and her tentacles were only inches away. As footage of various Disney villians flashed on the screen, I had to laugh when Darla from Finding Nemo popped up!

This may sound like a lot, especially given the fact that there is an opening number and a grand finale too, but the show is over in less than an hour. That is my only complaint with this show; it's way too short! It is so action-packed that you'll find yourself trying not to blink so you won't miss anything.

There have been some minor changes, but they are all improvements. My favorite is at the ending, when Ensign Benson trades in her dress whites for a beautiful princess-style dress. It really enhances the happy ending (I'm sure you can guess that by the end of the show, she's gained new confidence and poise).

If you get to the theater early, you'll get the red carpet treatment. Since this is an awards show, the guests are treated like celebrities as they enter the theater. The paparazzi snap photos, and there are even "celebrity interviews" that are broadcast on the jumbo screens inside of the theater. I had to stop and be interviewed so I could embarrass poor hubby, who was already inside, by welcoming to cruise #35 onscreen.

Speaking of red carpets, this cruise also featured another exciting event...the "premear" of "The Haunted Mansion." When a Disney movie premieres on land, there is a gala premiere on the ships, too. The movie was shown at various times throughout the cruise so everyone would get a chance to see it. We went to the 2 p.m. showing on Nassau day in the Walt Disney Theater. Usually movies are shown in the Buena Vista Theater, but for newer releases, they are often shown in the larger venue too.

I've always been a fan of the Haunted Mansion ride, so I was interested to see how it would translate to the big screen. Although it was slow moving in parts, Madame Leota (the face in the crystal ball) was a riot, as were the singing busts. And of course the hitchhiking ghosts put in an appearance too.

I was hoping to see "Brother Bear" and "Pirates of the Caribbean," too. They were both still showing on board, but with so much going on, we never got around to seeing them. Oh well, I can always catch them on DVD.

A Lazy Morning in Nassau
Hubby and I have been to Nassau so many times that we rarely disembark anymore. For us, it's just a lazy day to recuperate from a late night of partying and enjoy a leisurely breakfast out on our verandah. Before going to bed on Thursday night, we ordered room service for 9 a.m. Friday morning. I actually woke up a bit early, but I forced myself to go back to sleep so that I would be well rested for an early rise on Castaway Cay morning.

Around 9, hubby and I crawled out of bed because we knew that our breakfast would arrive at any minute. Room service is very prompt, so we often use it as our wake-up call. I went out onto the verandah to check out the weather, and when I stepped back into the room, the food had arrived. It was delivered by none other than my buddy Morgan, who I always think of as the "voice of room service" because he always seems to be the one who takes my call. I've talked to him on so many cruises that he probably knows my usual order by heart. Before this cruise, I heard that he was working as a server in the dining room, and I was anxious to meet him in person. But he moved back to room service, although not on the phone...now he is doing deliveries, so we finally got to meet him face to face.

If you are not as lazy as us, there are many options for breakfast. Room service offers continental options, but there is a huge spread up at Beach Blanket Buffet or you can opt for a table service meal at Tritons.

Once we were fueled, we had gained more energy, so we decided to exercise. Hubby has lost almost 50 pounds since the August 2002, and I have lost almost 30. Even when we're on vacation, we try to minimize the damage by keeping up with our workout routine. We grabbed water bottles and headed to the deck 4 promenade, but after a couple rounds it was closed off due to crew lifeboat drills and maintenance. We headed up to deck 10, which is another nice place to jog or power walk.

As we headed up the aft stairs, I noticed how the style of the carpet changed between decks 9 and 10. Another Disney Different: the seamless changing of themes. It changed from nautical to a pattern that matches the Palo d├ęcor, just as the walkways change between the different lands in the Magic Kingdom.

Hubby walked a couple more round with me, then headed to the spa to relax in the Rainforest. I continued my walk and enjoyed noticing more of the seamless theme shifts. As I walked past the Quiet Cove adult area, the music was slow and relaxing to complement the peaceful atmosphere. Just a few steps away, by the family pool, the music changes to energetic tunes that match the lively area. It changes again as you approach the Mickey pool and the gleeful youngsters played in the ears and splashing down the slide.

In addition to the sounds, I enjoyed the delicious smells from the restaurants in the aft area. They wafted up to signal the winding down of breakfast and the preparations for lunch and dinner. I watched my fellow passengers as they strolled the deck, basked in the sun, sipped drinks, played basketball, soaked in the whirlpools, splashed in the pools, or enjoyed the glorious morning in some other way.

Before I started working out regularly, I used to do a mile on deck 4, wanting to get done as quickly as possible and never walking any extra. Now, I walked for 45 minutes without even realizing how far I'd gone or how much time had passed. I finally had to quit because I'd worn my stiff canvas shoes and they were giving me a blister. My poor feet couldn't take any more abuse, so I headed back to my stateroom for some quality verandah time.

It was noon already, and the premiere of "The Haunted Mansion" was only two hours away. Time was flying much too fast, but it had been a lovely morning in Nassau. As I stood on the verandah, I noticed a Coast Guard ship pulling out, and then I did a double take. The Imperial Majesty Ocean Breeze was docked nearby, as usual, but I didn't recognize it at first because it had gotten a complete paint job. I always look for that ship because it's such a dog. It does overnight cruises, with most of the passengers sailing for free in exchange for going to a timeshare presentation. The ship is ancient, and it's always amazed me that it has boarded-up portholes! Actually, I guess "puttied up" would be a more accurate description, but it looks very tacky. Oh well, the food must be fresh because once I spotted some of the Ocean Breeze crew sitting on a trapdoor and fishing!

But now the ship looks almost decent, as the color scheme is brighter and the blocked portholes aren't so prominent. Oh well, I'll still stick to the Disney Wonder. It certainly stands head and shoulders over the Ocean Breeze, and even when compared to the new mega ships it holds its own.

A Green Christmas
As always, the terminal and ship were decked out in holiday finery, but as I mentioned earlier, there was a new surprise this year. For the first time ever, Castaway Cay had also been transformed for Christmas. At the disembarkation area, there were really cute iconic decorations, like a snowman, tree, giant presents, and a sleigh dubbed the S. S. Kringle. Be sure to bring your camera, and the Shutters photographers will be out there in the morning to take photos, too. Even the usual photo backdrops had been decorated. For example, the "Fresh Catch" backdrop was festooned in garland and ornaments. Carolers at the post office added to the festive atmosphere, and the tram was decked out in garland, with a giant set of reindeer horns on the front. Our cruise was very windy, but I hear that when the weather cooperates, you might even see some snow.

The decorations fan out all over the island, and many have a nautical flair (for example, the buoy Santas and the lighthouse tree topper). The typical music has been replaced by Christmas carols with a Caribbean flair (thank goodness...I think if I hear "Cheeseburger in Paradise" one more time, I'll go insane). Even the crew members get into the spirit in their red and white winter hats and scarves.

This is another big Disney Difference. We've been to both of RCCL's private islands, Labadee and Cocoa Cay. Labadee is anything but private. It's part of Hispanola (Haiti), and the natives shake you down for money when you try to sit in a lounge chair and even when you exit the bathroom. The Labadee marketplace was worse than Nassau's Straw Market. I had several merchants physically grab me, which I feel is a major violation of my personal space and not something I expect on a supposedly private island.

Cocoa Cay is much nicer than Labadee, and like Castaway Cay, it really is private. But somehow I doubt that it's undergone a holiday transformation.

The best was yet to come; sailaway, which typically takes place at 5:00, was delayed until 5:45 so we could see the Christmas tree lighting in the dark. It was such a lovely farewell. With Captain John and Mickey standing by, the tree suddenly was ablaze in lights as guests watched from decks 4, 9, and 10. You would also be able to see the tree lighting from your verandah if you have a view of the dock.

In case you won't be sailing over the holidays, we've posted a selection of Castaway Cay Christmas photos. And if you will be sailing, check them out anyway as they will really build you anticipation.

Smile for the Camera
Another neat holiday addition is the Christmas cards that are now offered at Shutters. You pick a photograph and a style, and your cards will be ready by the end of your cruise. I suggest taking advantage of as many photo opportunities as possible so you will have lots of pictures to choose from. There is no charge for having photos taken; you only pay if you buy. The friendly Shutters staff will be on hand all around the ship and on the island, too.

We chose a formal portrait that was taken in front of the huge Christmas tree in the atrium. It was a hard choice, as our Palo photograph came out really good too. Usually they take it at your table, but we asked the photographer to let us pose in front of some of the Palo Christmas decorations. The style we chose was Mickey's hand holding an ornament that contains the photo, with a drawing of the ship at the top. This is only one of several styles from which you can pick.

We noticed that there are now several more options for digital enhancement on your photographs. I've always liked the border that you can get digitally added to your embarkation photo, but now you can have one added to your photo with the captain too. We were busy during the captain's party so we missed that photo op. But later, when I was looking at our other photos, I noticed a neat border on the portraits with the captain listing his name, the date, and even "Wonder Facts."

But Shutters doesn't just take the photos. If you take your own, and you can't wait to see how they turned out, you can drop off your film for processing. They can handle just about any type of film, including Advantix and underwater cameras. When you drop off your film, your photos will be ready for you the next day.

Indulgence at the Vista Spa
Hubby and I believe that a cruise is the most relaxing type of vacation and that it should include plenty of time in the spa. He had two seaweed wraps, while I opted for a shipboard massage, a cabana massage, and an Absolute Face and Body (massage and facial). Hubby also spent some time in the Rainforest, a room containing scented showers, steam rooms, saunas, and heated tile lounge chairs. He noticed a great addition to the Rainforest: there is now a table containing a variety of spa products that you can sample. That has always been available in the Surial Bath (a private couples sauna room where you and your partner get to slather each other with mud). I'm really glad they've added it to the Rainforest, too, as the Elemis products are great and I know that people will really enjoy trying them.

Yet another new additional at the spa was pilates and yoga classes. I tried out the beach yoga on Castaway Cay, and it was the perfect way to start my day. Although the class starts at 9 a.m., you meet in the spa at 8:15 so there will be plenty of time to get to the adult beach, where it is held. It was very windy that morning, so when we got to the beach, there were huge white-capped waves crashing onto the shore. The relaxing sound of those waves was the perfect backdrop to the class.

The class was about 40 minutes long, and the level was simple enough to where even a beginner would feel comfortable. We used towels as mats, and our instructor led us through some sun salutes and simple poses such as the Warrior, as well as a progressive muscle relaxation exercise. I hope they continue to offer this because if they do, it's going to become a regular part of my Castaway Cay day. I had a massage scheduled at 10 a.m., so the timing worked out perfectly. The massage cabanas are right at the adult beach, and I was already relaxed before I even collapsed onto the massage table. What a way to kick off the day!

Hubby was quite excited to see that there is new equipment in the workout room. He loves elliptical trainers, so he was pleased to see brand-new ones that are almost just like his favorites at the health club. He took new photos to post on our website.

Castaway Cay...Barely!
Amazingly enough, we've never missed docking at Castaway Cay, nor have we been totally rained out, in all of our Disney cruises. What's even more amazing is that we sail mainly during hurricane season and in the winter, which are the more problematic times. When the cold fronts come in, the wind and waves can prevent the ship from docking. I had read on the DIS boards that this had happened to a couple of cruises in the weeks before ours, but the ocean was calm when we docked in Nassau so I thought that we'd be fine.

The next morning, I awakened to the drone of the side thrusters. I've been in 5650 enough times to be able to tell when the ship is having a hard time getting in. It sounded labored, which surprised me, since the weather had seemed calm the day before. I went out on the balcony and was greeted by gales of wind and frothy white water! As I watched, I began to think that I'd have yet another new experience on cruise #35: a missed CC docking and a day at sea. But finally Captain John managed to back us in. I think he must have used every bit of his skill to do it. Out of all our previous cruises, I can only remember one other time when it was that bad.

I was pleased that we had docked but a bit concerned about the gloomy gray skies and the wicked wind. But hubby and I are prepared for every eventuality. We always bring rain ponchos and plastic bags to keep ourselves and our gear dry in case of a sudden downpour. We planned to disembark separately, as I was doing the beach yoga and he had signed up for the nature walk/kayak trip. Since my meeting time was 8:15 at the spa and his was 9 a.m. in the Promenade Lounge, we made plans to meet at the adult beach later.

Although the wind was strong, I was still warm enough to do the yoga in my swimsuit. But I noticed a lot of people who were bundled up pretty well. I suspect that they were the natives of warmer climates, like Florida. When it's winter in Chicago, so anything above 60 degrees feels warm to me.

After yoga, I settled into a hammock to read. There are only four hammocks on the adult beach, so usually you have to be very early to get one. But on this trip, the threatening sky was keeping people away and the beach was virtually deserted. The ocean waves looked inviting for body surfing, and when I stuck my toe in, the water didn't feel nearly as cold as I'd thought it would. But after yoga and a massage, I was feeling supremely lazy so I opted to relax with my book.

Eventually hubby showed up. The kayak part of his trip had been cancelled, but they'd still gone on the nature walk (I think they refunded half of the price). He was eager to share all the trivia he'd learned about the plant and animal life on Castaway Cay. We decided to head over to Cookies for lunch and then return to the ship, as a matinee of "Disney Dreams" had been added in case the weather got worse. As we rolled along in the tram, he explained that the beautiful red "flowers" were really leaves and how many of the plants were native to the Bahamas, but not originally to Castaway Cay. He told me about the birds they had spotted and how most of the island is in its native state, with only a relatively small area developed. I don't think I've ever seen him so enthusiastic about nature! He is already looking forward to signing up again on our next trip in hopes that he'll be able to kayak through the mangroves.

By the time we reached Cookies, the sun was making an earnest effort to displace the clouds, and more and more people were heading off the ship. We got some food and found a table in the sun. I had a cheeseburger and some ribs, while hubby indulged in his favorite lobster burgers. And of course I topped off my meal with a generous serving of frozen yogurt. In deference to my diet, I had managed to avoid Scoops for the entire trip, but no visit to Castaway Cay is complete without some frozen cookie dough yogurt.

Somewhat reluctantly, we headed back to the ship. I was sad that we hadn't had a chance to swim, and I noticed that quite a few brave souls had now made it into the water. But the idea of seeing the "Disney Dreams" matinee was appealing, as it would give us extra time to pack at night and get to bed a bit early. At least I was happy in the knowledge that once again our docking streak was unbroken.

The Castaway Club Party
I don't think I've ever missed a Castaway Club party, except way back in the early days of Disney Cruise Line before there even was such a thing. Since I consider hubby and myself to be Platinum members, it's a matter of pride to attend on each cruise. The party is typically held on one of the clubs on Beat Street (or, in the case of a really large number of repeaters, the entire Beat Street area might be taken over). On #34, it was in Studio Sea, but usually it's either Wavebands, the Cadillac Lounge, or Barrel of Laughs.

If you are a repeater, you will receive an invitation with all of the specifics. This time, Wavebands was the place, so at 5:15 we headed down for some snacks, a Bahama Mama (or a glass of wine in hubby's case), and some pleasant conversation with the crew. This trip was the first time that we've met Cruise Director Teresa, and we also chatted with our old friend Brent, Mike (the hotel director), and of course Captain John. The party is a great opportunity to meet some of the officers and even to get a picture with the captain.

There are some other nice little benefits to the Castaway Club, too. When you board, you will find a nice little gift in your stateroom. Currently, you receive pins and a towel, although it has changed many times over the years. My collection includes two different types of bags and Magic and Wonder picture frames. The towel is probably my favorite, although the old blue bags were very handy. We still bring on of our old ones on almost every trip.

Adult Antics
Disney is most commonly associated with kids and family entertainment, but on the Wonder they do a great job of keeping the adults busy too. If you just want to be lazy and enjoy some quiet time away from pint-sized horde, head over to the spa, the Quiet Cove pool, or the adult beach. The kids might try to invade, but you'll find that Disney takes the adults-only rule quite seriously. As we soaked in the Quiet Cove whirlpool on embarkation day, we watched as crew members shooed away kids who tried to take over the pool.

If you're in the mood for a party, you'll discover that Route 66 is an adults-only playground after 9 p.m. There are various events and theme nights; our favorites are the 70s Party and the Match Your Mate game show. On this trip, I thought that 70s Night might not be as hilarious as usual because the women who played Gloria Gaynor were all very subdued. But when the guys stepped up to do their John Travolta dances, all hell broke loose! The entire room was in hysterics. I don't want to give too much away in case you've never been to this event before, but let's just say that this was the first time I've ever seen an encore (and what an encore it was!).

Match Your Mate is always good for a few laughs, too. Three couples are chosen as contestants; the ones who have been married for the shortest length of time, a "mid-range" couple, and the ones who have been married the longest. On this trip, there was an elderly couple who had been married for an unbelievable 65 years! I think that's the most we've ever seen on any of our cruises. I don't want to give away the questions, but I do have to share the funniest moment. The elderly gentleman told the story of his honeymoon, when he and his wife were driving through Mexico. This was in the 1930s, and they were driving a giant car. They picked up a little Mexican boy who was hitchhiking and who didn't speak a word of English. Each night, they would remove one of the huge bench seats so the boy could sleep outside of the car, and then they bedded down inside and...well, you know, did what newlyweds do. When he told this story, everyone in Wavebands was practically rolling on the floor.

I saw Wonderquest on the Navigator, but we didn't get to do it because it began at 9:45 p.m. and we were still at dinner. It's a really crazy scavenger hunt type game that I highly recommend. We also missed 60s night, which I haven't seen yet. Apparently it has replaced 80s night on the 3-night cruises. I was sorry to miss it, but it was on the last night and we still had packing to do. Oh well, at least we'll have another new experience on cruise #36 in February.

Now It's Time to Say Goodbye
Parting is always such sweet sorrow, especially on a three day cruise when the days seem to whiz by at quantum speed. We know the disembarkation procedure by heart, but if it's your first time, the cruise director gives a talk that is repeated on your television throughout the evening. It details everything you need to know about luggage, customs, etc.

Disembarkation is a huge Disney Difference. RCCL's embarkation might be a pain, but it's nothing compared to their horrible disembarkation process. They issue you colored luggage tags, and you cannot leave the ship until your color is called. This may not sound bad, but I know from personal experience that it might be a couple of hours before you are called. People gather like cattle in the public areas of the ship, anxiously waiting for liberation.

On Disney, you get colored luggage tags, too, but that's just so you can easily find your luggage when you disembark. You leave the ship whenever you want to, once it's been cleared by customs. You can leave early if you have an early flight, are heading to Disney World, or are spending the day in Cape Canaveral or Orlando. If you have a late flight, relax and enjoy a leisurely breakfast before heading off. You have an assigned breakfast seating based on your dining rotation, but you are free to skip it if you choose. You can skip breakfast altogether (which is what we usually do, since we're typically tired of eating by the end of the cruise), or you can eat whenever you want up at Beach Blanket Buffet.

You can leave your luggage out the night before to be brought down to the terminal for you (which is where the colored tags for identification come in), or you can keep it with you and carry it off the ship yourself. You leave via the exit in the deck 3 atrium, present your forms, ID, and proof of citizenship at customs, and that's it...you're done! I still haven't figured out why the rest of the cruise industry doesn't follow Disney's lead.

We had arranged an 8 a.m. pickup with Happy Limo, as we were heading to the Kissimmee area to spend the day before our late evening flight. Our driver was waiting for us when we arrived with a big, beautiful limo! We piled in and headed away from Port Canaveral; already, I was missing the Wonder and wishing that our next trip would be sooner than February. But I know that I do have to go to work sometime!

Web Check-In Roulette
Use of web check-in used to be pretty uncommon in Orlando, since most people are there on vacation and don't have access to a computer. But that is changing rapidly due to the availability of internet cafes, laptops with wireless connections, and business centers in hotels. More and more, we see fellow passengers clutching the tell-tale black and white boarding pass printouts.

As I mentioned earlier, it's always a crapshoot on whether ATA will honor our seats when we select them via web check-in. I had been lulled into a false sense of security because it had been a while since we'd had any problems, but our lucky streak was about to end. Boarding had just begun when hubby was paged to the check-in desk. Not a good sign. At first I told him to go himself and I would watch the luggage, but then I decided that I'd better go along because he is very mild-manner while I'm more...uh, persuasive. I got there just as I heard the agent saying that his seat had been double assigned. Considering all the problems we've had in the past, we have ATA's customer service number programmed into our cell phones. Even when we've checked in first via the internet, they have tried to let the person who got our seat later, at the airport, keep it, and I refuse to accept that. On occasion, I've actually called customer service to back me up and handed my phone to the desk supervisor to let them duke it out.

But things didn't turn so ugly this time, as the person working the desk was someone who has dealt with us in the past. When we saw who it was, he immediately told the other person, "I'm sorry, but these people selected those seats first." I breathed a sign of relief, as the plane was literally full and I didn't want to set stuck crammed somewhere in the back.

The flight was a bit bumpy, but not too bad. As we descended into Midway, I looked out over the houses below decorated with blinking Christmas lights and they reminded me of one of those miniature villages. There was no snow yet, but I still felt the Christmas spirit in the air. On the way out, I had found it hard to believe that it was Thanksgiving weekend already. Now, having seen the beautiful decorations on the ship and Castaway Cay and having heard a variety of Christmas carols, from Caribbean style to traditional, I was definitely in a holiday mood. We've already got our reservations for Thanksgiving 2004 on the Wonder, and next year we'll be spending Christmas on the ship too. But happily, we won't have to wait that long to sail again, as we embark on our annual anniversary cruise in February, and I can't wait to see what new surprises will be in store.

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