Saturday, June 12, 2004

Trip Report #38, June 2004 on the Wonder

Kicking Off Cruise #38
It’s so hard to believe that we just finished Disney cruise #38, especially since we only started cruising in fall of 1998! When I tell people how many times we’ve sailed, I have to catch myself because I usually start to say something in the twenties. Thirty-some seems incredible to me, and it will be even more so when we hit 40 in November.

But it was, indeed, #38, and as usual we sailed on the Disney Wonder and stayed in stateroom 5650. This time around, since we were sailing the Thursday after Memorial Day, we combined our cruise with a visit to Disney World. The good part of doing that is the fun of an extended vacation. The bad part is that when it’s time for the cruise, it’s a melancholy excitement. I’m always excited about sailing on the Wonder, but that means the trip is almost over and I’m just one short weekend from returning to reality.

Off for a Holiday Week of Fun
But that’s getting ahead of the story, which starts the Friday of Memorial Day weekend at Midway Airport in Chicago. We typically fly ATA out of Midway. They like to shuffle their flight times around, but we’re usually on one that lands in Orlando around midnight. Even when we’re doing a cruise only, we still fly out a night early just in case of delays. Chicago is notorious for weather delays in the winter, but snow isn’t the only problem. Even in the spring and summer, we’ve been delayed by fog and thunderstorms. Being a compulsive planner, I like the extra breathing room that arriving a day ahead provides. We fly out after work, so it doesn’t even cost an extra vacation day.

We usually take Cicero Avenue straight north to the airport. There was a bit more traffic this time around, probably due to the holiday weekend, but we still got there in a respectable amount of time. We park at an offsite lot, Midway Park Savers, that is not owned by the airport. It’s right across the street from the Orange Line (train) entrance, so you can walk rather than take a shuttle bus. I am not a big fan of shuttles, and you have to walk pretty far to and from the Midway shuttle bus anyway. When you’re returning and the airport is crowded, it can be an absolute free-for-all to get on the parking shuttle buses. With Midway Park Savers, we always know they’re just a brief walk away. The only potential glitch is the chance of rain, but so far we’ve never gotten rained on either coming or going. Just in case, we pack rain ponchos; one of us would don a poncho, pick up the car, and drive over to pick up the other person and the luggage.

The weather was sunny and warm this time around. The airport had a pretty good crowd due to the holiday. We had already done online check-in, so we had our boarding passes, and we’d switched to our favorite exit row. We fly ATA so much that we know the good seats on all of their planes. We’re usually on a 757-300, which is 44 row plane that uses every bit of Midway’s short runways to take off. I would think it would be much harder to land, too, but a flight attendant once told me that it takes less space to land than a smaller 737 because of the power of the reverse thrusters.

When he did our online check-in, hubby noticed by the seat map that the plane was very full. We sat down at a table near an electrical outlet so I could do some work on my laptop while we were waiting, and we bought some dinner at the food court. Midway has really come a long way from a tiny outpost to a modern airport. While it still can’t rival O’Hare, and while its baggage service is still the pits (waiting an hour or more for your bags is not uncommon), the food court and shops are really nice. I usually get Mexican food at Lalo’s or a baked potato at Gold Coast Hot Dogs. Hubby is partial to Potbelly Sandwiches or Harry Carey’s Restaurant, and if you have sweet tooth, you can stop by Ben & Jerry’s for dessert. The bookstore is nice for some pre-flight browsing, and there are various other little shops.

The Midway Gates of Hell
We didn’t have too much time before our flight, and unfortunately we were leaving from gate A4B. Gates A4A and A4B are the worst gates in the whole airport. They are not really “gates” in the commonly accepted definition. Rather, they are an add-on that requires the walk from hell in a never-ending, narrow walkway. Personally, by the time I’ve completed the walk, I’ve wondered if I’m still really on airport property. One of the gate agents summed it up quite well: “By the time you reach the plane, you’ll be halfway to Florida.” There are some chairs in the walkway, but people usually sit outside the walkway entrance, not realizing just how far they are going to have to hike in order to board. We know the drill, so we went all the way down to the boarding area at the door of the jetway to wait.

At boarding time, the first set of rows was called, then the next set shortly thereafter, but hardly any people passed by us. That seemed odd, since we knew the plane was full. Usually, the minute boarding is announced, the crowd rises up immediately like a tidal wave of humanity engulfing the jetway entrance. Hubby surmised that the people who had been called were still in the process of walking to the gate down the never ending path. Apparently he was right, as the crowd hit a few minutes later. We never heard them call any more rows, so we figured that it had disintegrated into a free-for-all and joined the line. It’s a good thing we did, as there was no rhyme or reason to the boarding process and overhead space was at a premium. Ironically, once we were all on board, we had to wait an additional half hour for our flight crew. They had just landed on a delayed Boston flight, probably on the other side of the airport, and now they were frantically running many miles to the A4B outpost.

The flight itself was smooth and uneventful, just the way I like it. Soon enough we were touching down at Orlando International Airport to kick off our Memorial Day week vacation.

Journey to the Port
Orlando was hot an sunny, and the days sped by as we visited the theme parks and spend late afternoons at Typhoon Lagoon. All too soon, it was Thursday morning and time to head to Port Canaveral for the 38th time (actually, the 39th if you count our voyage on Sovereign of the Seas five years ago). We had arranged a 10 a.m. pickup with Happy Limo. We like to get to the port a little early so we can relax before boarding. It takes 45 minutes to an hour to get to the ship from the Disney World area and 30 to 45 minutes from the airport, depending on the traffic. From Orlando International, you can jump right onto the Bee Line (528) at the North Exit. From Disney World, you can take I-4 to 528. Once you’re on the Bee Line, it’s pretty much a straight shot, with only one split-off.

We chatted with our driver, Chris, as the miles whizzed by, and I knew that we were close when we drove over the first huge bridge. It’s always so exciting to catch your first glimpse of the ships in the distance. The terminal area wasn’t crowded yet, so we dropped off our bags with a porter and headed through the security checkpoint. You have to show identification just to get onto the terminal property, and then you go through a screening akin to the one at the airport. It actually seems to be more thorough, as they require you to boot up your laptop. Then it’s up the escalator, where crew members will make sure that you’ve filled out your documents correctly and route you to the check-in deck.

The check-in area is huge, so there is rarely much of a line. There are Castaway Club (repeat guests) and concierge check-in lines at the far right, but you can check in at any line if there is crowd at the designated desk. It was great to see all of our port friends again. We always feel like we’re being welcomed home. When we first arrived, there was only a handful of people waiting to board the ship. Then suddenly it seemed like the crowd exploded from nowhere! Soon the entire queue was filled.

There is plenty to do and see while you are waiting. The shop model is fascinating, and it’s a neat photo opportunity. You can almost always count on a character appearance by favorites such as Chip, Dale, and often even Captain Mickey himself. There are television monitors that show cartoons, but from what I’d seen, the kids are usually much too excited to watch. They seem to prefer wandering around in awe or stepping outside to look at the ship (there is a large outside area where you can smoke or just step out to get an up close and person view).

Because we sail so often, we know many of the people at the port. We saw many of our friends, including Tanya, Dorothy, Art, and Barbara. It’s always great to be greeted by old friends and familiar faces, and saying hello to everyone makes the time go even faster. We are booked on the Magic for a California cruise in 2005, and it’s going to feel strange to sail from a new port full of new people.

Time to Board
You never know exactly when boarding will start, as it depends on how quickly the ship is ready. Although it’s hard to believe, they turn over that huge vessel in something like three hours. By 9 a.m. one set of guests have departed, and by noon it’s just about time for the next set of guests to board. Boarding usually starts by 12:15, although it may be a little earlier or later. This time it was early, with people marching through the Mickey head, pausing for an embarkation photo, and then stepping onto the Wonder right around noon. We’ve gotten to know several of the Shutters photographers, so we said hello to Monika as our photo was snapped.

We headed over to Parrot Cay on deck 3 aft for lunch. The same buffet is also served on deck 9 aft, at Beach Blanket Buffet. Each one has its advantages. The biggest plus for Parrot Cay is if you are a soda drinker, as you can get soda included with your meal. Beach Blanket Buffet has a more limited beverage selection (think punch and lemonade), but you can dine outside if you prefer. We are not soda drinkers, but I discovered my first nice surprise of the trip: REAL iced tea is now served on the ship! For years, it has been the Nestea-type stuff that comes out of a tap. Some people don’t notice the difference, but to a real iced tea fan, that tap stuff is an insult. It bears about as much relation to real iced tea as instant lemonade does to fresh-squeezed.

In the past, I always requested the servers to prepare hot tea for me and then serve it over ice. Now, happily, the real thing is readily available. Oddly enough, although fresh tea was served at lunchtime in Parrot Cay and at dinnertime in Triton’s, I still received the tap stuff when I ordered iced tea on Nassau day at Triton’s for lunch. Hopefully the changeover will be complete by our next cruise, or maybe they serve the tap tea at lunch to save labor.

I like to load up on salads at lunch, while hubby focuses on the jumbo shrimp. There is always some type of fresh carved meat, and this time it was lamb (my favorite), with mint jelly on the side. I got some cold strawberry banana soup, too. There are fresh sandwiches by the soup bar, and also a kid-friendly table with items like corn dogs, macaroni & cheese, and chicken tenders. Even though it’s meant mainly for the little ones, I’ve seen more than one “big kid” partaking of the comfort food.

We were seating with a family from the DIS boards; it’s always fun to meet people in person that we’re already “met” online. As we ate, we poured over our Navigator to plot out our first day activities. The two things I highly recommend checking out immediately are the start times for Palo and spa reservations, particularly if you have very specific times and treatments in mind. If you have an infant and will want to take advantage of the onboard babysitting, you’ll want to get to Flounders Reef to make reservations for that early, too. You don’t have to worry about running frantically to the kids clubs, as every child on board is assured of a spot. But I’ve had several parents tell me that it’s a good idea to register before the safety drill because the line can get pretty bad afterwards.

That space of time before the drill is pretty much the only time you’ll need to run around or worry about anything. Once you have your reservations all made, you can kick back and relax for the rest of the trip. You probably won’t be able to go to your stateroom immediately after boarding, as they aren’t usually ready until around 1 or 1:30 p.m. That gives you plenty of time to eat, get ressies, register the kids, and generally check out the lay of the land.

When we stopped by Wavebands, where Palo ressies were being taken, we were greeted by Pietro, the manager of Palo, who we know from previous cruises. We also saw our old friend Ali, and at various times during the cruise, we saw Rita and Kapoor, two other friends from many past trips. You can tell that we like dining onboard; many of the crew members we know are associated with food!

A Dip in the Pool
I highly recommend packing swimwear in your day bag, as embarkation day before the safety drill is an excellent time to enjoy the pools. It is probably the least crowded that you will ever seem them. Hubby and I have a tradition of kicking off our cruise in the adult hot tub. This trip was no different…well, okay, maybe a little different. Usually the pool is ice cold, which is why I opt for the hot tub. But for some reason it was nice and warm this time, so hubby did laps while I paddled around. We were the first takers, but as the afternoon progressed, more people wandered over to take advantage of the nice, warm water. One rude (or maybe illiterate) person brought his young kid; when I’m in the hot tub, I like to see how long it takes a crew member to come and shag them out, but since I was in the pool, I pointed out that it was adults-only myself. They left without comment, although I suppose there wasn’t much they could say. Maybe, “Oh, we didn’t noticed the eight signs” or “But rules are for other people, not us.” I’m sure that people wouldn’t like it if the adults took over the Mickey slide, so they should be respectful of the adult areas.

Disney is very good about enforcing the rules, which is one big advantage over Royal Caribbean. On RCCL’s Voyager of the Seas, the kids rampaged from one exercise machine to another in the spa after running soaking wet out of the adult whirlpool, and the supposed adults-only pool on Radiance of the Seas was the only indoor pool. That might not sound like a big deal, except that it was an Alaskan cruise, and the kids would have frozen to death if they didn’t take over the adult pool.

On Disney, in the pools and the adult clubs I often see kids asked to leave. After we moved to the hot tubs, I even saw a group of teenagers carded at the pool. I enjoy seeing the kids onboard, but it’s great to have the option to totally get away from them for some quiet time. If you really can’t stand being around children at all, then Disney is not the right cruise for you. It is inevitable that you’re going to see lots of them on board. But if you like knowing that there are nice, peaceful, enforced adult areas, you’ll love the Wonder.

t amazes me that many parents don’t seem to consider babies as “kids.” There have been quite a few times I’ve seen people with infants be asked to leave the pool or the nightclubs. The best one had to be the people who brought their toddler to the adult beach and then left her on a chair while they went swimming. The poor kid just sat there yelling and screaming! A crew member had to wade out into the water to find the parents, and they were highly offended that they were asked to leave. It’s bad enough they didn’t abide by the adults only rule, but that poor little girl could have wandered into the water and drowned as they weren’t even within sight. Oh well, I guess it takes all kinds.

After a hot tub capper, we headed to our stateroom around 3:30 to see if our luggage had arrived so hubby (the packer of our family) could get our bags unpacked before the safety drill. He has it down to a science, and he was done by the time we heard the warning signal. We donned our life jackets and headed to Station Q in Animators Palate. All of the lifeboat stations are located on deck 4. Many of them are outside, but there are also several stations in Animators and the Walt Disney Theater. Since we are usually in stateroom 5650, we know our station quite well, and I’ve finally mastered the art of donning and tightening the life jacket. The drill only takes about 15 minutes. They start off by taking attendance, and then you see a demonstration of how to use the life jacket and hear an announcement about emergency procedures. Then you are dismissed and join the rest of the salmon. For me, once I’m out of there, I know that my vacation has officially begun.

It’s Spa Time
Hubby and I have sailed so often that we don’t usually go to the sailaway party anymore. Sometimes we enjoy sailaway from our verandah, but more commonly we like to book spa appointments for right after the drill. This time around, I had booked a hot rock massage and hubby had booked a seaweed wrap. The seaweed has been around for as long as I can remember, and it’s a favorite for both hubby and I. The hot rock treatment is new to the Wonder, although I’ve had it a few times at a spa near my home. I was anxious to try it, although a little apprehensive about the boost in the treatment prices. They had gone up quite a bit since our last sailing, so we decided we’d do one more spa-heavy cruise and then probably cut back a little on our next trip. I was looking forward to trying the treatment that replaced the Absolute Face & Body, but at over $200 vs. $144 for the old AF&B, it probably won’t be a regular thing.

We headed up to the spa to join the second-wave crowd. Usually there are a lot of people waiting when it first opens to take appointments, typically around 1 p.m. The second wave arrives right after the safety drill, waiting anxiously for the doors to reopen at 4:30 p.m. There are people who already have treatments booked, as well as a large number who are still hoping to make appointments.

Soon enough we had checked in, filled out our consultation sheets, and were ready for our treatments to begin. I just love lying in a semi-coma on a massage table when I heard the ship’s whistle and feel the movement begin. The spa is all the way forward, so you always hear those notes of “When You Wish Upon a Star” announcing that your voyage has begun.

The hot rock treatment was excellent, and hubby loved his seaweed wrap (but of course he always does). In a hot rock massage, the heated stones are used to give the massage, and several are also placed on various parts of your body. It is so warming and soothing that I had to struggle not to fall asleep. The masseuse performs some traditional massage as well. Back on land, I’ve had his type of treatment done with both hot and cold stones (actually, the cold is frozen marble), but all hot is my preference.

Hercules the Muse-ical
I emerged in a blissful state of relaxation, and I could have easily taken a nap, but it was almost showtime. The first night’s show was “Hercules,” which I’ve seen countless times, although not as many as “Disney Dreams.” Herc is a lot of corny fun that makes the most sense if you’ve seen the movie. Even if you haven’t, you can still appreciate it, but you might get somewhat lost in the plot. For me, it never becomes boring because there are many opportunities for ad libbing, so the cast is able to have fun with the show. We have seen various casts, and each new set of actors adds their own touch. I also like seeing how the same cast evolves over the course of their contract. We saw this group in April, on our Easter cruise, and it was amazing to see how much they have added.

Basically, this show is a Cliff Notes version of the movie “Hercules,” done in a vaudeville style. The only big thing missing from the movie is Pegasus (he makes a brief appearance in the beginning, and you see him at the very end on the Magic, but not the Wonder). Other than that, it’s amazing how they worked in so much material from the movie. The jokes are silly, but they still make me laugh. Originally I wasn’t fond of this show, but over time it grew on me, and now I always look forward to it.

I think that the best part is the interplay between Hades, Pain, and Panic. Hades was funny in the cartoon, but in the stage version, he is even more like a wicked stand-up comedian, and Pain and Panic are his two foils who totally steal the show. With each new cast, Hades often gets new jokes, but some remain the same. My favorite is the big finale, when he is cast into the River of Death and he says, “It’s warm…must be the kiddie pool.”

Chow Time
We were on late seating dinner, as usual. Since we come from Chicago, 8 p.m. is like 7 p.m. to us, and we like not feeling rushed before dinnertime. The shows are arranged around the dining times so that guests who eat early see the show after dinner, and those who eat late see the show beforehand. The shows last about an hour, so if you are on the late seating, you will have plenty of time to get ready after the entertainment.

We were scheduled to start off in Triton’s, which is the most formal of the three restaurants. That worked well for us, since Mickey and Minnie were out for formal portraits. Hubby donned a jacket and tie and I donned a dress so we could get a portrait taken before eating. The pictures are taken near the front of the restaurant, so it was nice and convenient.

We were at table 21, which was a table for eight. I know that some people don’t like eating with others, but hubby and I love to meet new people on the cruise. We eat alone every day back home, so we like to dine and chat with others onboard the ship. Our table mates were two couples from South Carolina (not traveling together…it just worked out that way) and a mother and daughter from Georgia, originally from Jamaica. The two couples were celebrating wedding anniversaries, and the little girl was celebrating her birthday. I could have embarrassed hubby by revealing that he would be celebrating his 50th birthday at the end of the month, but I didn’t because our November cruise is perilously close to my 40th and I didn’t want to take a chance at retaliation.

Our tablemates were all great fun, and I was sorry that we would be at Palo on Friday night because the two South Carolina couples were both eating at Palo on Saturday and the mother and daughter were going to try to move to early seating, which means we would be alone on the last night. I would love to have fun tablemates like them on a weeklong cruise. Three nights goes by so quickly; just when you’re all getting to know each other, it’s over. If you do Palo one night, that makes it all the shorter.

Our head server was Michelle, who we know from several previous cruises. Our server was Richard from Chile. We had never had him before, but kept the whole table in stitches with his stories. He kept trying to convince us all that he and Michelle were married. I had camembert cheese and vichyssoises (cold potato soup) for my appetizers, duck for my entrée, and the white chocolate domes for dessert. It was a hard choice, as one of the vegetarian entrees, a vegetable curry, nearly lured me away from my original choices.

Crashing Early
On our first night, we often crash early to build up energy for the rest of the cruise. We used to go to the 80s party, but we stopped when they removed the Michael Jackson dance numbers. The dances, performed by the main stage cast, are the best part of the party. We heard later that the numbers have been restored, but we didn’t know that on Thursday night so we headed for our stateroom after dinner with sleep on our minds.

There were a pair of towel swans waiting for us, as well as a huge supply of shampoo (I’d warned our stateroom host, Emy, about my hair washing obsession when cruising…my hair is usually either oily from the spa, full of chlorine from the pool, or salty from the ocean, so I spend a lot of time in the shower). Before we crashed, I ordered room service for the next morning. There are door hangers in each stateroom from which you can order continental breakfast to be delivered at a specified time the next day. We typically use breakfast as our wake-up call, as they are great about showing up right on time, and sometimes even a little early. If I didn’t have a verandah, I would probably just eat in a restaurant, but eating outside on your balcony in the sea air is such a perfect way to kick off the day. The room service staff on the Wonder is excellent.

I also called 7-PALS, which is the character appearance hotline. I am obsessed with getting a photo with Lilo and Stitch, but the timing is always off. They always seem to be out when we’re at the spa or have to be somewhere else. I did get a photo at Til We Meet Again a few trips back, but I’ve been itching for a nice photo from Shutters. I was in luck: Stitch would be in the atrium at 9:45 on Friday morning, although there was no mention of Lilo. Since breakfast was coming at 9 a.m., I figured I could eat, grab a quick shower, and rush down to deck three for a picture.

As we prepared for bed, hubby realized that he’d forgotten my white noise machine. It is an invaluable marriage saving tool when you are married to a snorer, and it also drowns out hallway and neighbor sounds. Happily, one of the assets of 5650 is that it is located so far aft that there is virtually no hallway traffic. There is no one across the hall, and it’s very rare for anyone to walk by unless they are totally lost. There are staterooms overhead, but for some reason I’ve never heard noise from our upstairs neighbors while in that room. With no extraneous noise, the only thing I had to worry about was snoring. Hubby has lost 50 pounds, so that problem has cut down quite a bit. As long as I was able to keep him on his stomach, he was quiet.

“Sea Day” in Nassau
Whenever we sail on the Wonder, we stay on the ship and pretend that Nassau is a day at sea. If you have never been there, I recommend that you disembark and look around, but if you’ve seen it once, you probably know that you won’t be missing too much if you just stay on board. It happened to be a holiday, so the stores were all closed anyway, although the street vendors, straw market, and hair braiders were out in full force.

We woke up to the room service knock and went outside to enjoy our breakfast in the sunshine. The weather was perfect, sunny and not too hot, and we had an unobstructed view because there were no cruise ships next to us. All that was nearby on our side was a Coast Guard sailboat. Although I’ve seen the Coast Guard in Nassau many times, I’ve never seen them on a vessel with sails before. We finished up, took quick showers, and headed down to the atrium. Stitch had just come out when we arrived, so we joined the line and got some really neat shots. He loves to ham it up for the camera, as well as to throw the occasional autograph book. I was pleased at the prospect of finally having a professional photo with my favorite character; I couldn’t wait to visit Shutters later to see how the shots had turned out.

On the way back to our stateroom, we passed the Buena Vista Theater and saw that “Home on the Range” would be starting in half an hour. We’ve never seen it, so we decided to give it a go. It was cute, but definitely no “Lilo and Stitch.” I remember reading a review in which the writer stated that it was okay, but more like that quality of a made-for-television special than a feature film. That didn’t make sense to me at the time, but it did once I saw the movie. It was cute, but in an uninspired way. It had none of the evil humor that made “Lilo and Stitch” my favorite, nor did it have the impact of a classic like “The Lion King.” I also hated the digital animation, which made it resemble a diorama. Cartoons should either be all traditional, like “Lilo” (yes, I know there were some digital parts, but it’s the closest thing to classic animation I’ve seen lately) or all totally, unmistakably digital like “Shrek.” Using digital effects in traditional animation looks really cheesy. I cringe every time I see that phony-looking water in the opening of “Tarzan,” or worse yet, the digital hydra in “Hercules.” I have nothing against digital effects, but I think the two mediums need to be kept separate unless there is a compelling reason to combine them.

Okay, enough of my tirade. The movie wasn’t a favorite, but at least it gave us a few laughs. It’s nice to be able to see Disney movies on the ship, especially considering what you’d pay in the theater on land. We don’t usually go to the movies on board because they generally don’t fit into our schedule, but this time around it was too convenient to pass up.

After the movie, we headed to Triton’s for lunch. I enjoy their Hawaiian salad, which is not on the menu but which they invariably offer, along with made-to-order pasta. The menu items are good, too, particularly the pumpkin curry soup. The salad has pineapple in it, and I like to add maraschino cherries. Everything at lunch was delicious, but as I mentioned earlier, I was surprised to discover that the iced tea at Triton’s was the tap stuff. Other than that, everything was delicious. Hubby and I were still somewhat full from breakfast, so we skipped dessert.

More Spa Treatments
Next, we spent some quality verandah time before our spa appointments. Hubby managed to fit in some exercise before his appointment, but I was lazy and curled up outside on a chair with a paperback. The exercise room is free to use, and the treadmills are especially neat because they look down onto the bridge. There used to be free exercise classes, too, but now there is a charge of $10 for most of them. Although I enjoy the yoga on Castaway Cay, I wouldn’t do it now that there is a charge. I belong to a health club back home, so I can take plenty of yoga and other classes when we get back ashore.

My treatment was the Absolute Spa Ritual, which has replaced the Absolute Face & Body. I was anxious to try something new but a little amazed at the price (over $237 as opposed to $144). I doubt I’ll be doing it every cruise, but I figured that one indulgence wouldn’t hurt. In the future, I might switch to Ladies Morning, which is similar to the old AF&B and which costs around $125. Hubby had a hot rock massage, which he was really looking forward to after hearing how much I’d enjoyed it on Thursday.

The Absolute Spa Ritual was very pampering. It involves a massage and a Japanese silk facial, which is different from the facial in the AF&B. It is such a luxurious treatment. My only reservation is the price, but if you really want to spoil yourself, it is a great way to do it. I always love a massage, and the facial left my skin baby soft and glowing. Hubby reported that he really enjoyed his hot rock massage, too.

The Golden Mickeys
The Friday evening show was “The Golden Mickeys,” which is my favorite. Hubby still insists that “Disney Dreams” is better, but for some reason I prefer the new kid on the block. We were on board for the premiere of “The Golden Mickeys” in September of 2003, and I fell for it instantly. The show uses an awards show format, with a character named Ensign Benson as the unlikely and reluctant hostess. It is so fast paced, and it includes many of my favorite songs, such as “Son of Man” from “Tarzan,” and “Cruella De Vil,” as well as an appearance by Elvis Stitch. It’s always a riot to watch Rhona Rivers interviewing people as they enter the theater. Some of the things the kids come up with are priceless.

I love the musical numbers, but my favorite part is the beginning, when Roy Disney himself talks about his Uncle Walt’s background as classic footage flashes on the screens. Disney cartoons and movies are great, but I always enjoy biographical material on how it all began. Sure, it was all started by a mouse, but I like to see homage paid to the genius who invented that world-famous rodent. I love the statue of Walt and Mickey in the Magic Kingdom, and I have lots of artwork with the two of them together and a copy of the statue “Partners” gracing my family room. The sequence about Walt never ceases to make me misty eyed.

We sat in the second row on the right hand side. We have our favorite spots, but we also like to view each show from different angles. We cruise so much that I think we’ve seen “Disney Dreams” and “Hercules” from every section of the theater. The show was great, as always, although there were two minor glitches by the performers. I think that’s the first time I’ve ever seen an “oops,” let alone two in one show. But overall I enjoyed it as much as always. I was hoping they might have a matinee because of the Nassau holiday (they did that on Good Friday on our last cruise), but no such luck this time. Otherwise, I would have definitely seen it twice.

I’m glad that Disney modeled “The Golden Mickeys” on the “Disney Dreams” concept of incorporating lots of familiar characters and songs. I think one of the biggest reasons that people never really warmed up to “Voyage of the Ghost Ship” and “C’est Magique/Morty the Magician” was because they were not “traditional” Disney entertainment. “Ghost Ship” was totally original, although looking back, it reminds me just a bit of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie, with no Disney characters. “C’est Magique” was the same way (no known characters), and with a New Age twist that probably made kids antsy (personally, I enjoyed it). Even morphing it into Morty and adding a guest appearance by Sorcerer Mickey wasn’t quite enough.

By contrast, Golden Mickeys is much like the entertainment you see at the parks, only on a grander scale and with state of the art special effects. You hear all the kids in the audience squealing with delight as they see Snow White, Terk, Stitch, Princess Aurora, and more all appearing on the stage. It’s a real family pleaser.

Later in the cruise, I discovered that Golden Mickey statues are for sale in the on-board shops. I had one more shelf available on my entertainment center where I keep all my Walt and Mickey knick-knacks, so I decided that a Golden Mickey would fit into that space nicely. As I mentioned, my family room has a Walt and Mickey theme. My entry foyer is heavy on Figment and Stitch, with some attraction posters from the Magic Kingdom thrown in for good measure. My master bedroom is my Disney Cruise Line homage room, complete with all sorts of ship knick knacks on every available bit of dresser and nightstand space and artwork scattered on the walls. Framed photos from Shutters fill in the remaining wall space. It keeps me from getting too homesick until our next cruise.

After the show, we headed back to our stateroom to dress up for dinner at Palo. Palo is the adults-only alternative restaurant. It costs $10 per person, and it is work every single penny. Palo is like a restaurant on land, with its own galley and meals that are cooked to order. It serves Northern Italian cuisine, but even if you like simple meat and potatoes, you will still find something to eat. For steak eaters, the filet mignon is as tender as butter, and you can have it with wine sauce or gorgonzola cheese (my favorite). Our table mates, who went to Palo Saturday night, like plain food so they ordered the filet with no sauce at all, and they pronounced it excellent.

Myself, I am usually torn between the filet and the daily specials, although there are several other regular menu items that I like, too. I adore the lasagna, but that is a special that is usually offered on Thursday, and we like to eat at Palo on Nassau night (Friday). If it’s not available, another special usually tempts me away. This time, it was the chicken pasta with a lucious white sauce, although I was almost lured away by the veal scallopini. The chef, Christian, did an absolutely wonderful job.

One word of advice: if you order an appetizer, you may want to skip the antipasto…not because it’s bad (it’s actually delicious), but because you will be getting a LOT of food, and you MUST save room for dessert. Palo chocolate souffle is one of the most divine desserts I’ve even eaten. But one thing I never skip is the bread basket with three sauces, which are downright addictive.

Our server was Dalibor, who we know from many previous cruises, and our friend Dragan was there too. They are both excellent servers, although honestly I can’t say that we’ve ever received anything less than excellent service at Palo. It’s so much fun to make friends with crew members over the course of our cruises and to see how some of them even move around. We initially met Ilana in Palo, and she has now joined Guest Services.

We had a table by the window where we could watch the sunlight slowly fade, with the lights of Nassau twinkling in the distance. Because it was a holiday, we got an extra added treat. At nine o’clock there was a beautiful fireworks show that was the perfect complement to an excellent meal.

Match Your Mate
After our meal, we returned to our stateroom to change clothes and head down to Wavebands to see “Match Your Mate.” It is very much like the Newlywed Game, except that the couples have been married for varying lengths of time. There is one set of newlyweds, one couple who has been married the longest, and one that is somewhere in between. This show is always entertaining, but sometimes much more so than others. It all depends on the couples; some are very shy, while others are willing to “let it all hang out.”

This time around, the couples were a bit subdued, although some of their answers were good for some hoots and hollers. “Match Your Mate” is always a fun way to cap the night in Nassau, and then we head directly to bed to rest up for the island.

Another Great Day at Castaway Cay
Our 38th visit to Castaway Cay dawned bright and sunny. I didn’t know if we would be able to match the “Mary Poppins weather” (practically perfect in every way ) that we had experienced in April, but amazingly enough, it was almost identical this time, too. It was just a bit warmer, but still not muggy enough to be uncomfortable.

Usually we’re among the first people off the ship, but hubby wanted to take the theming tour at 10 a.m. It is one of the few activities that we have not done yet. We slept in a bit and had our room service breakfast delivered at 9 a.m. Then, hubby headed off to learn all about the theming of the Disney Wonder while I stayed back to enjoy some quality verandah time. I love the big but cozy verandah of 5650, but on a three day cruise, it can be a challenge to find enough time to fully enjoy it. Perhaps our next door neighbors were having the same problem, as I never saw them outside even once during our cruise. That’s very unusual…usually I catch at least a few glimpses of our neighbors, sometimes it seems like we come outside on the exact same schedule. But this time, it was obviously an opposite schedule, or perhaps they just weren’t in their room very much.

The verandah was shady, with a perfect little breeze. 5650 is on the starboard side of the ship; since it almost always backs into Castaway Cay, that means it offers an idea vantage point of the island (boat lagoon and beaches) rather than the dock. I settled in with my book, occasionally peering over the railing to watch some crew members doing a lifeboat drill and to observe the jet ski tours leave and return. The time went by quickly, and before I knew it, it was 11:30 and hubby had returned. He really enjoyed it, and he was spouting off all sorts of facts about the patterns of the ship’s carpeting (for example, the only red carpets on the ship are outside the theaters) and how the chandelier in the atrium is actually made of plastic. I guess he was eager to share his new knowledge.

All Ashore
We gathered up our beach gear and headed down to the gangway on deck one. Since it was later than usual, we decided to have some lunch and then set up camp on the family beach rather than go all the way to the adult beach. We knew that the area at the farthest end of the beach, near the Heads Up Bar, rarely ever gets crowded, so there was no hurry.

The only thing that we missed was the photo opportunities. When you disembark early, there are Shutters photographers at various points of interest, such as the Fresh Catch sign, and there are usually several Disney characters out near such landmarks as the post office and Mount Rustmore. Fortunately, we already have almost every conceivable photo, but it’s fun to get your picture taken and see how it turns out,

Our first stop was the post office to mail a batch of postcards. There is an internet group that mails cards to children who are going to be going on a Disney cruise. The kids get a real kick out of getting a postcard from “Mickey.” Most people mail the cards from their hometown, and I doubt that the kids pay much attention to the postmark. But since we sail so often, we like to get some names and mail the cards from Castaway Cay, with a Disney Cruise Line stamp. If you’re going to mail anything, be sure to bring cash because you cannot charge the stamps on your Key to the World card. Also, be aware that it can take many weeks for the mail to make its way to the United States.

Our next stop was Cookie’s Barbecue. I wasn’t too hungry yet; we usually skip breakfast on Castaway Cay day, so my stomach was confused. Hubby had plenty of lobster burgers and fresh fruit, but I had a light meal and some chocolate chip cookie dough yogurt to top it off. Once again, I forgot all about the Caesar salads until I had already gotten my food. There are fresh salad stations, but they are near the picnic shelters rather than in the main serving lines. The salad looks delicious, so next time around I’m going to have to remember to try one before I pile too much on my tray at the main buffet.

Next, it was off to the beach. We hiked down to our secluded end spot, where there were still plenty of prime chairs with umbrellas. Even though it was after noon, the four hammocks near Heads Up bar were still unoccupied, too. But I knew we wouldn’t be doing much lying out, so we opted for chairs rather than hammocks. We chose a shady spot near the restroom, and hubby went off to rent a bike while I headed into the water. He had brought his snorkel gear and wanted to pedal over to Serenity Bay to see if he could find some fish. I had brought a $1.50 air mattress, so I grabbed my book, paddled out into the water, and read while lounging on the mattress in the balmy ocean.

The sun was warm and shining brightly, so I had to force myself to go back ashore a couple of times to reapply sunscreen. I am very fair skinned and burn quite easily. Even though hubby always packs blue aloe vera gel with lidocaine, which is a real lifesaver for burned ghost-people like me, I prefer not to get fried in the first place. This time around, my frequent and judicious use of sunscreen kept me relatively unscathed.

Stop, Thief!
Hubby returned a couple of hours later to report that someone had stolen his bike! He left it in the rack like he had done so many times before, and when he returned, it was gone. Apparently crime has invaded the island paradise of Castaway Cay! There is no place to get another bike at the adult beach, so he just headed back.

He reported that the water at the adult beach was very shallow, and he didn’t see many fish. He guessed it was because the shallowness meant that the water was a bit too warm for his finny friends. Although Serenity Bay is far from the official snorkeling area, he and I have seen quite a large variety of sea life there. We have both seen stingrays and “aquarium fish” in a rainbow of colors. Hubby’s most exciting find was a barracuda, while mine was a nurse shark, although the ink squirting squid was a close second. Recently, we went snorkeling in the shark reef at Typhoon Lagoon, and somehow it wasn’t quite the same being with nurse sharks in a tank when you’ve had one pass within inches of your leg in the open sea.

Hubby took over the air mattress for a while, and I paddled around with him. Then we decided to return to the ship, as I had a spa appointment scheduled for 4:30. It’s always so sad to leave the island, knowing that in less than 24 hours vacation will be over. But I took comfort in the fact that I’d be back in September, and I had my fingers crossed that we’d have a repeat performance of the lovely weather.

One More Spa Treatment
Back on the ship, it was time to prepare for my last spa treatment. I was scheduled for a reflexology foot massage at 4:30. I knew that meant I would be a little late for the Castaway Club party at 5:15, but the good thing about a foot massage is that you don’t have to undress. You also don’t get massage oil in your hair, necessitating a washing.

I showered off all the sand, washed and conditioned my hair, and checked myself for any early signs of sunburn. Fortunately, other than a couple of small pink spots where I probably applied my lotion too thin, I was relatively unscathed. Even though it felt odd to disembark so late, it was probably a blessing in disguise. Otherwise, when we go to Castaway Cay as early as possible, we tend to spend a bit too much time in the sun. Even though we know better, common sense quickly flies out the window when we’re on vacation.

Since I had eaten a light lunch, I was feeling some hunger pangs. There is no reason to go hungry on a cruse ship; on the Wonder, food is only a phone call or a few decks away. I didn’t feel like waiting for room service; even though they are fast, I had my spa appointment coming up. Instead, I ran up to deck nine for some french fries and lots of honey mustard sauce for dipping. Their sauce is absolutely exquisite…the fries are merely a delivery device. I noticed that they serve cheese nachos and chili dogs, so I asked for a fusion creation: chili cheese nachos. They turned out pretty good.

In the stateroom, hubby had been channel surfing and found a really neat show on the Magic’s last dry dock, when major changes (Diversons, the Stack, etc.) were made. It was a fascinating program, showing time-lapse footage and lots of details on how the old spaces on the Magic were transformed into something completely new and different. I wish they would show it on the Travel Channel or Disney Channel so I could tape it. I already have “The Making of the Magic,” the show about the initial construction of the ship, as it is on the free travel planning DVD you can get from Disney’s website.

After seeing the show, I was doubly curious about what will be done to the Wonder when it goes to dry dock in a few months. We will sail right before, in September, and then we will see the “new” Wonder when we return for our traditional Thanksgiving cruise. I am excited about the prospect of having a place like Diversions, especially if they offer the beer tasting event like they do on the Magic, and I also can’t wait to check out the coffee bar.

When I was done pigging out, I tore myself away from the television and headed to the Vista Spa, where I succumbed to an hour of bliss. I know that reflexology purportedly has health benefits, but I enjoy it just because I love a good foot massage. Any additional benefits over and above relaxation are frosting on the cake. I nodded off, although I did stir twice: once at 5 p.m. when the Mickey whistle blasted as the ship headed out to sea and once when someone ran across the deck overhead bouncing a ball. One of the design oddities of the Magic and Wonder is that the basketball courts are directly over the spa...not the best planning move. But despite the slight disturbances, I quickly became comatose again and dozed until the massage was over.

The Castaway Club Party
For those who may not know, the Castaway Club is the name of the club for returning Disney cruisers. You become a member automatically once you sail, and you receive little benefits on your subsequent cruises. You get a gift in your stateroom (currently a towel, although it might be changing soon because we received a notice that the towels were out of stock and we’d receive one in the mail later; then the towel showed up in our room the next day).

Since our first return cruise was way back in January of 1999, we have seen the gift change several times. There have been two different types of tote bags, plus picture frames, in addition to the current towel. I like the towels, but we have received an inordinate number of them by now. My favorite was the original blue tote bag, which holds an amazing amount of stuff. I still have one left, and I still strain the poor things to its limits. We sold several on Ebay, and now I wish I had kept them as I will be sorry when the last one finally gives out due to my constant abuse. The second bag was a black sports type that is nice, but not nearly as handy.

As a returning cruiser. you also get to attend a party with the captain and some of the officers, where you can get a free drink (alcoholic or non-alcoholic) and munch on hors d’ouvres like cheese sticks and chicken strips. The captain and cruise director give short speeches welcoming everyone back, and if you bring your camera, it’s often a good photo opportunity with the captain.

The party is almost invariably held at 5:15 on Castaway Cay day on the three night cruise. Its location varies, depending on the number of repeat cruisers on board. When the crowd is light, it is often held in the Cadillac Lounge. On the flipside, sometimes it’s so large that it takes over every club on Beat Street (usually only happens on the Magic…I don’t think I’ve ever seen it take over Route 66 on the Wonder). This time, it was held in Studio Sea, and the crowd was pretty light.

I arrived a bit later than I expected, so Captain Henry was already giving his speech. I slipped in and found hubby at a table towards the front. I was full so I didn’t partake of snacks and drinks, but I was glad to say hello to the captain and to meet Kara, the cruise director. We had actually met her before, but not since she’d taken her new position. Tony reported that our friend Linsay was also there, although I missed her due to my late arrival.

Disney Dreams
When the party ended, we headed to the theater to see “Disney Dreams,” which is still hubby’s favorite show. I think he could watch it all day, if possible; even after seeing it at the theater, he always keeps it on our stateroom television all evening. It runs on the television every hour for people who might have missed it. They show “Hercules” on Thursday, but they haven’t started showing “Golden Mickeys” yet. I hope they do soon, as I could watch that one as much as hubby watches “Disney Dreams.”

This show has a very Disney-esque plot. A little girl named Anne-Marie makes a wish to be able to fly to the place where dreams really do come true. With the help of Peter Pan and the inspiration of several popular Disney stories (Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Little Mermaid, and The Lion King), she finds her own magic and ends up with the requisite happy ending.

“Disney Dreams” doesn’t move as quickly as the “Golden Mickeys.” That’s neither a bad nor a good thing; the pace of each show is just right for its style. “Golden Mickeys” has an awards show format, while “Disney Dreams” is more of a traditional story that lends itself to a slower pace. My favorite numbers in this show are Aladdin and Little Mermaid, but I always enjoy the powerful rendition of “Circle of Life” from “The Lion King.”

“Disney Dreams” is a traditional feel-good show that the kids will love. They squeal with delight as their favorite characters appear on stage, and there are all sorts of neat surprises such as the real bubbles during “Under the Sea” and the fireworks at the end (be sure to stay for the second curtain call).

The Last Supper
It was time for our last meal on the Wonder. We skip breakfast on the last morning, as we are usually much too tired of eating and prefer to disembark a little early. I wondered if our tablemates from Jamaica had been successful in moving to early seating. The others were all slated to eat at Palo, so that would mean we’d be dining alone. I know many cruisers who would absolutely love that, but we like communal meals.

When we arrived, the mother and daughter were already there, and we were joined shortly thereafter by the two couples from South Carolina. Even though they had dined at Palo, they were having so much fun at their regular table that they came just to socialize. Apparently we had missed quite a wild dinner at Animators Palate! Between Richard and our tablemates, Table 21 had been the “rowdy table” of the evening.

We had another fun night, as Parrot Cay is a great place to be rowdy. There is a limbo line and lots of commotion as tables compete to make the most noise for their favorite servers. I discovered that I could create quite a din by banging our metal table number with my spoon. We were having so much fun that by the end of the meal, my face actually hurt from laughing so much.

Our friend Chef Vinnie, who is the head chef at Parrot Cay, stopped by to say hello. We met him at a cooking demonstration on the four day cruise of our Wonder “three-peat” (three cruises in a row), so we always touch base when we are on board. He is an absolute genius with seafood (well, actually, with any food).

We were sorry that our cruise was ending, and we wished we had been on a week’s cruise so we could have gotten to know our tablemates better. Ironically, one of the couples had such a great time that they booked another cruise on the Wonder in September…the cruise right before our next one!

Richard entertained us with more of his stories. If you ever have him as your server, be sure to ask him about the helicopter. He had us all in stitches, but finally we all reluctantly had to go. Our tablemates needed to finish packing and put their luggage out. We keep our bags with us and carry them off the ship ourselves, so we don’t have to worry about the 11 p.m. deadline. But we wanted to stop by the atrium to see “Til We Meet Again” and then change into more casual clothes before the 70s party.

Til We Meet Again
When we got to the atrium, “Til We Meet Again” was already in progress. It is the final character appearance, and a prime photo opportunity. A wide variety of characters descend down the staircase in front of Triton’s and into the atrium to take photos with the crowd. The Shutters photographers are not there, so you will need to bring your own camera. In addition to “traditional” characters, there are also performers from the main stage. Usually it’s the bunch from Hercules, and I’ve often seen Peter Pan and Anne Marie, too. This time, Peter was out with Wendy. Usually there are a couple of characters up on deck four, too, but the majority of them are down on deck three.

I was hoping to see Stitch, who is usually near the piano, but he wasn’t out so we headed back to our stateroom. Sometimes there is almost no crowd, and sometimes the amount of people is enormous. This was one of the crowded times, although I don’t think that anything will ever beat the crowd that showed up on our Fourth of July cruise. In July, in addition to the characters, there was a balloon “drop & pop,” so the atrium was wall to wall people, and the sound of breaking balloons rivaled any fireworks display. That July experience was crowded, but very exciting.

This time, there were no balloons, but the crowd density was still large. But even when there are a lot of people, you can still get at least a couple of good photos. When the crowd is minimal, you can get at least half a dozen. We could have gotten some this time, but we opted to head back to the room to change.

The only bad thing about Til We Meet Again is that it can be hard to get there on time if you have the late dinner seating. We actually arrived a little while after it had started, since we had spent a lot of time chatting with our tablemates. It starts at 10, but 10:15 or even 10:30 would probably make it a little easier.

Flash Back to the 70s
Once hubby and I had changed, we headed to Wavebands for the 70s Party, our favorite adult event. It starts at 10:45, which means I like it so much that I am even willing to sacrifice precious sleep to attend. I know that I have to be up early for disembarkation, but I am always drawn to the bell bottoms and platform shoes.

We like to arrive a bit early in order to get a table as far away as possible from the smoking area. There are several non-smoking areas; unfortunately, all but one of them are directly in front of smoking areas. This means that if you don’t choose wisely, you can be sitting directly in front of a smoker even though you are technically at a non-smoking table. As you face the stage, the left hand side of the room is all non-smoking. The ventilation is poor, so the smoke and smell will still drift over to you, but at least you won’t be elbow to elbow with a smoker. I wish that the lounges would be non-smoking during all shows, but no such luck.

As it turned out, the club was almost deserted. Saturday is a bad night, especially at 10:45, because people are still rushing to get their luggage out. Sometimes the 70s crowd is still decent, but it was small on cruise #37 and almost non-existent this time around. I was beginning to worry that it would be cancelled, but the cruise staff held a “Cliff Notes” version (only two Gloria Gaynors and John Travoltas instead of three, and only three of the Village People showed up for the special guest appearance instead of the usual five. Hubby got roped into being a Village Person, so of course I had to jog back to our stateroom for the camera. He’s done it a couple of times before, but not since they started going shirtless.

We had a great time dancing, and one of the John Travoltas was hilarious. Even though the crowd was small, everyone seemed to be having a great time. After hubby’s guest appearance, we had one last dance and then headed back to our stateroom. It was a fun cap to another excellent cruise. I wish that the 70s party was on Thursday or Friday night, but I know that it wouldn’t work logistically. We like 70s night much better than 80s night, although I was happy to hear that the Michael Jackson numbers have been added back into the 80s festivities.

Another Goodbye to the Wonder
Back at our stateroom, hubby took care of the last minute packing while I filled out the Customs form and comment card. I also made out some thank-you cards to the many crew members who made our vacation extra special once again. I recommend bringing some cards because it’s a nice little way to recognize people in non-tipped positions who go that extra mile. We also like to bring little “extras” like phone cards or Florida lottery tickets to add to the tips for those who deserve a little something more.

We hit the bed, and all too soon it was morning and we found ourselves docked at Port Canaveral once again. I always start out cruises with a few minutes out on the balcony, looking out at the port, and that’s typically how I end them too. Hubby and I showered and packed up the last few items, and then I stepped outside and said a quiet little goodbye to my favorite stateroom and favorite ship. I knew that we would be returning, but September seemed so far away. At least our next three cruises come in rapid succession: September, November, and December. And I don’t want to hurry the next one too much because when it comes, it will mean that summer is over.

We hiked down to the midship elevators (most of the time, the aft elevators are not crowded, but on the last morning they are packed with people going to and from the restaurants, which are located aft). We pressed both the “Up” and “Down” buttons, as you are often better off going up when you’re on deck 5 on that last day. Otherwise, the elevator is usually full of people heading down from decks 8, 7, and 6. Sure enough, two full elevators of “Down” people passed us. We hopped in an empty one heading up, and as we headed back down, it was full before we reached deck 5 again.

There was no line for disembarkation, so we said a quick goodbye to Captain Henry, who was standing at the gangplank, and headed off the ship. Unlike Royal Caribbean, on Disney there is no wait to leave the ship. Royal Caribbean makes you wait until your luggage tag color is called, which can be literally hours, and you can’t wait in your stateroom. You have to find space in a public area of the ship. With Disney, you simply leave whenever you choose to. You can have your assigned breakfast, eat at the buffet, or (like us) skip the food altogether.

Once we entered the luggage area, we saw that there were lines at Customs. They moved rapidly, at least until the people two parties in front of us got to the Customs Officer. They didn’t have their ID and documents ready, and of course it took them forever to find what they needed in their luggage. They never thought to step aside and let anyone pass, either. Finally, after several minutes, I rolled my eyes and said to hubby, “Didn’t they say ‘Have your ID and customs forms ready’ about a hundred time?” A man in the group directly behind the line-holder-uppers said, “I think it was more like two hundred!”

Eventually, we made it through Customs and back out into the real world. It is always so sad to see the ship from the other side of the fence and to look up at the verandah where I was just standing not so long ago. Disembarkation is always hard, but at least I could take comfort in the fact that we’d be back the Thursday after Labor Day and I’d be looking out at the port from that same verandah, knowing that other adventure is about to begin.

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