Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Trip Report #39: The Wrath of Hurricane Frances

My husband and I have sailed every year during hurricane season since 1998 with no problem, so I guess it was inevitable that our luck would run out. We like the bargain basement rates that you can get if you are willing to gamble on the weather. We had also never missed Castaway Cay in 38 trips; as a matter of fact, we were on the last Wonder cruise where guests were able to disembark on the island before Hurricane Floyd wreaked its havoc. With all of the cruising we do, I knew that eventually our lucky streak would end.

Cruise #39, on September 9, marked the end of that streak. It was the very first time that we ever personally experienced the disruptions that hurricane season can cause, including a change of embarkation port and missing Castaway Cay. While it was not the most pleasant of vacations, it was interesting to personally experience the challenges. I enjoy being able to report on new and unique things in my trip reports, and now I can speak from firsthand experience about the risks of sailing during hurricane season.

Actually, we avoided the worst of the problems. A few weeks back, Hurricane Charley roared through Florida, followed closely by his slow moving sister, Frances. Between the two of them, they wreaked a lot of havoc in the Sunshine State. It is rare for hurricanes to hit the inland areas, like Orlando/Kissimmee, with much force, but Charley beat the heck out of that area. Frances followed a couple weeks later, beating up on the Disney area (although not as hard as her “brother”) after causing extensive damage in the Cocoa Beach/Port Canaveral area.

Due to the weather, both the Magic and Wonder had to abruptly lengthen their cruises. The 8/28 sailing of the Magic went from seven to ten days, and the 9/2 Wonder three day cruise was extended into five. On the surface, being stuck on a cruise ship might sound like a fun and exciting prospect. In reality, people have jobs that they must go home to, children waiting with babysitters, and other responsibilities that don’t stop just because of a storm. With the weather so unpredictable, no one could tell them definitively when they would be able to leave and where they would disembark. Satellite communication was disrupted, making it difficult to stay in touch with people back home. All in all, it was a worst-case hurricane season scenario.
The Magic made a stop in Galveston, Texas, for fuel and supplies, and eventually both ships were able to dock at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, Florida (about four hours from Orlando). I can only imagine the mass confusion as people tried to change their flights to leave from the new location or to get back to Orlando International. The Magic’s next cruise was abbreviated to four days, and the 9/5 sailing of the Wonder was cancelled.

I half-suspected that our 9/9 sailing would be cancelled. I already knew that Castaway Cay was out of the picture, since the hurricane parked almost directly over it for a few hours. That wouldn’t be reason enough to scrap the cruise, as itineraries are not guaranteed and can easily be changed if needed. But with Port Canaveral still closed, I couldn’t believe that we would be expected to make a four hour trek to the ship. That would chew up a good part of embarkation day, not to mention the logistics of checking in passengers at a different port.
Surprise, surprise! It turns out that Disney did, indeed, decide to send the 9/9 cruise out of Port Everglades. Normally I would be happy, but the idea of that long journey to a different port was less than appealing.

My husband and I had been scheduled to fly to Florida the Friday before our cruise. We planned to stay in Celebration for the week, meeting up with some friends from New Jersey and enjoying the off season at the parks. Then we would link up with some friends from Celebration with whom we were sailing on the Wonder. In view of the chaos, we were seriously considering canceling the cruise and simply extending our stay in the Orlando area. The weather was nice, other than the typically midday Florida showers, and the parks were virtually empty. At both Universal Studio and Islands of Adventure, we never waited more than five minutes for any attraction, including the normally-crowded Spiderman and the brand-new Mummy roller coaster. After all, we already have Thanksgiving and Christmas cruises booked, plus half a dozen more in 2005, so why mess with the turmoil?

Even though Disney was providing bus transportation from Orlando and Port Canaveral to Fort Lauderdale, most of the buses were scheduled to leave quite late (as it turned out, the last ones didn’t arrive at the ship until 7:30 p.m.). A multi-hour bus ride is not the way I like to start my vacation, especially when it’s sure to be packed with bored kids who are also anxious for the trip to start and not happy to be cooped up in cramped quarters.

Also, I like to arrive at the port as early as possible. It’s so nice to get on the ship early, and the first hours of the cruise are some of the best times for me. My husband and I have a routine: have a relaxed lunch, gather all the new children’s navigators, then soak in the hot tub until safety drill time. Palo and spa reservations are also taken during this time span. It might not sound like a lot, but we are usually on board by 12:30. Even if we arrived by safety drill time, that would be almost four hours gone. The people who arrived at 7:30 lost up to seven hours of their vacation (not to mention the first night’s show and/or dinner).

I know the risks of sailing in hurricane season and that fact that cancellation is normally not possible after final payment. But due to the special circumstances (moving the departure point over 200 miles away), I assumed that the rules would be waived. After all, airlines allow you to cancel or reschedule when your flight time is moved by a certain amount of time, even if the circumstances are beyond their control. We weren’t sure yet what we wanted to do, but I wanted to know our options before we talked to our friends. Surely Disney had relaxed their policy…right?

Wrong! The agent I spoke with curtly informed me that my friends and I would forfeit the whole cost of our cruises if we cancelled! Not just a minor penalty…the WHOLE cost of the cruises! I couldn’t believe that she didn’t at least offer to let us reschedule (goodness knows I have plenty of future reservations to which I could have transferred the money). But no, she insisted that we’d lose all our money, so we might as well sail. Then she wanted to know which bus we would be taking to Port Everglades. Obviously we wanted the earliest one (we could easily go to any resort from Celebration), but she didn’t have that information. Eventually she said we could leave from the Grand Floridian at 11:30 a.m. (putting us at the port around 3:30 p.m….ugh!). It didn’t sound appealing, but she insisted that we make a choice, so I said we’d leave from there.

I called our friends, and they were still game to cruise, so we decided to grin and bear it. But the idea of riding the bus was just as unappealing to them as to us. One of them is in a wheelchair, so being trapped in a cramped seat would have been even worse for her. Instead, they suggested that we do a one-way car rental to Fort Lauderdale and leave as early as possible Thursday morning.

A bit of quick internet research revealed that Thrifty Car Rental is close to Port Everglades and has a free shuttle. They also have a location right across the street from Celebration, so I called to see what type of vehicles were available. They had a Jeep Cherokee for around $35; that would allow us to leave when we wanted and give us plenty of room to sit in comfort and stash the wheelchair and luggage.

On Thursday morning, we hit the road around 8:30 a.m. According to the maps we consulted, looked like an easy drive, mainly all on expressways. Better yet, all tolls were waived in Florida because of hurricane evacuations, so we saved the $11 it would have normally cost us.
Even with a couple of stops, we arrived at Thrifty by 12:30. The agent checked us in, loaded us into the van, and we were on the way to the port within minutes. For anyone who ever sails out of Port Everglades and wants to do a one-way rental, I highly recommend Thrifty. They are conveniently located right at the entrance to the port, and there are plenty of gas stations to top off the car’s gas tank before you drop it off.

It took a few minutes to locate the Wonder, which was not listed on any of the signs. The shuttle drove around while we all gaped out the windows, and finally we spotted the familiar red smokestacks poking up off to the right, in slot 25. It was so surreal to see my sea-faring “home” in such different surrounding. Port Everglades is much different than Port Canaveral with a very industrial look. It is surrounded by buildings, with the city skyline nearby and air traffic constantly coming and going overhead from the nearby airport. That’s a sharp contrast to Port Canaveral, which is pretty much by itself.

Once we found the ship, the van was able to drop us off right at the entrance to the terminal. We were among the first to arrive, so we dropped off our luggage, zipped through the security check, and headed to the check-in area. Disney had transported the Port Canaveral porters and terminal crew all the way to Fort Lauderdale, and it was so nice to see familiar faces in such alien surroundings.

The terminal was very different from the elegant Disney-designed Art Deco building. It was industrial-looking, with wide, open space like a warehouse. It wasn’t at all crowded, since the buses hadn’t started arriving yet, but Disney had set up nearly as many check-in posts as they normally have back at Port Canaveral. Unfortunately, the computer system wasn’t working, so everything had to be done manually. It wasn’t bad with just a handful of people checking in, but I can’t even imagine what it was like when all the buses started pulling in.

Once we had checked in and said hello to many of our friends, we headed outside to board. Normally you go down a gangway, have your photo snapped, and embark in the deck 3 atrium. You walk in on the plush carpeting, with the beautiful glass sculpture overhead and the statue of Ariel on your left, as the cruise staff announces your family name. It’s a very elegant way to start your trip.

But this time around, the embarkation photo was snapped outside, and then you headed onto the ship via deck 1. It felt very strange to see the cruise staff lined up to greet everyone in front of the elevators in the hallway by the medical center! It definitely lacked the pomp of the usual embarkation, but they did the best they could under difficult circumstances.

Actually, I was anxious to get our embarkation photo because it was really one of a kind. We have a wide variety of them, taken over the years, with different backdrops and styles. But none can compare to standing outside at Port Everglades! Later in the cruise, we also got a nice shot with Captain Mickey and a good group shot with our friends in Palo. I recommend taking as many photo opportunities as you can, since you are under no obligation to purchase the photos. It’s a lot of fun to stop by Shutters and see how they turned out. I was hoping to get a picture with Lilo and Stitch (I got one with Stitch alone a couple cruises ago, but I am still stalking Lilo). Unfortunately, due to all of the itinerary confusion, the 7-PALS line wasn’t updated so I didn’t find out about their appearance until it was over. Normally, dialing 7-PALS from your stateroom phone is a great way to find out who is appearing where and when.

By this time, it was 1 p.m., and all the staterooms were ready (I’m sure they had actually been ready for several days due to the previous cancelled cruise). We headed up to good old 5650, my home away from home. I tried my door key…red light. My husband tried his…red light again. A green light means that the door has unlocked. Red means that you can’t get in. After a few more futile attempts, I called Guest Services and was told to bring the cards down to be recoded. My husband did that chore while I stayed by the door with our day bags. Our friends, who were staying one deck up in 6654 (a handicap accessible stateroom) had the same problem, as did countless other people. It must have been one of the effects of the impromptu check-in system.

Once we were inside, we ditched our bags and headed down to Parrot Cay for lunch. We hadn’t eaten any breakfast, since we wanted to get an early start on the drive to Port Everglades, and we knew that there would be no lack of food over the next three days. My husband waited for our friends outside the restaurant while I headed off to Wavebands, where Palo reservations were being taken. The Navigator mentioned that there would be a brunch, but unfortunately not enough people signed up for it (they probably didn’t realize that there was one; it happens only on the four day, but of course our Castaway Cay stop had turned into a day at sea). I chatted with my friend Ali for a bit, marveling at the small number of people popping in to make reservations. It was very apparent that most of the guests had not arrived yet.

Back at the restaurant, everyone had grabbed some lunch and a table. I got a plate and took my usual selection of salads and some freshly carved meat. This time around it was ham (sometimes it is beef or lamb), and it was very good…lean and flavorful. I also took some cold strawberry soup, which I tend to eat for dessert. It’s a lot like a smoothie in a bowl. I hadn’t intended to get anything from the dessert table, but I was tempted by the chocolate mousse, topped with whipped cream and chocolate shavings. I enhanced it with some marshmallows from the ice cream table.

While we were dining, we saw our friend Chef Vinnie from Jamaica. We met him quite a while back, when he was the chef in Animators Palate and gave one of the cooking demonstrations. If you are on a four or seven day cruise, I highly recommend the “Art of Entertaining” classes. At the cooking class, you get to taste the dish (at the one we attended, it was delicious scallops), and you even get a little taste of wine to accompany it. Vinnie works in Parrot Cay now, so we had a few minutes to chat with him.

After lunch, we all headed over to the spa. Prior to the cruise, I had plotted out a pretty full spa schedule, but I had left some time open in case Palo brunch was added on the sea day. Since the brunch was cancelled, I decided to slip in another treatment. My friends are spa people too, and of course my husband is just as bad as I am, so between us we planned three days full of decadent treatments.

Normally the spa is quite crowded, but because of the delays in transportation, there was only handful of people. I noticed that there is no longer a charge for the exercise classes; they used to be free, but a charge was instituted a couple of months back. I was glad to see that they’re back to being free, as I enjoy the yoga classes. There is normally an early morning yoga session on Castaway Cay; of course, that wouldn’t be happening this time, but I will be looking forward to it in November.

When Floyd rampaged over Castaway Cay a few years back, it totally destroyed the dock and caused major damage to the buildings and equipment. The island was out of commission for many long weeks. Disney did an admirable job of restoring it, but my husband and I knew it so well from previous visits that changes and remnants of the destruction were still apparent.
This time around, we were told that most of the damage was cosmetic. Due to the cancelled cruise, the ship had time to go to Castaway Cay, and virtually every crew member had gone ashore to start the restoration. They were confronted with a newly formed beach where the path from the ship to the family beach had once been. There were rocks everywhere, and Mother Nature had done what Disney was planning to do: dredged the adult beach. Thankfully, the buildings and dock were pretty much intact, so once the sand is removed from where it shouldn’t be and put back where it should, guests will be able to return to the island paradise. Hopefully that will be done within a week or two.

Once we had finalized our spa schedules, we headed off to our staterooms. Normally my husband and I spend a little time in the hot tub, but between arriving a later than usual and spending some time chatting over lunch, we realized that it was almost time for the safety drill. Our luggage had arrived, so Tony put away what he could (he is the packer/unpacker of the family), and then we trooped down to lifeboat station Q in Animators Palate, looking like mutated relatives of Spongebob in our bulky orange life vests.

At the drill, it was apparent that many, many people still had not arrived. Usually the bodies are packed in like sardines, but this time there was enough room for everyone to sit, with lots of chairs to spare. Seeing how late the buses were coming in made me happy that we had chosen to drive.

After the drill, it was time for our first spa appointment. We like to kick off our cruises lying on a massage table up on deck 9; there’s no better way to officially start your vacation. Normally, this coincides with the sailaway, but since we were still waiting for so many people, the ship remained stationary. They did blow the Mickey whistle at the traditional time, though, so I got to hear the first notes of “When You Wish Upon A Star” as I luxuriated in the bliss of a reflexology treatment.

Reflexology is very similar to a foot massage, but the masseuse works on the pressure points of your feet. I love having my feet massaged (actually, I love any sort of massage), and I usually schedule this treatment on the afternoon of Castaway Cay day. The returning cruisers party usually starts at 5:15, and I like to spend as much time on the island as possible. If I schedule a regular massage before the party, I have to allow enough time to wash my hair, which gets yucky from the massage oil. With reflexology, I can pretty much go right from the treatment to the party, since they only work on your feet. You don’t even have to get undressed, so it’s good for shy people too.

But with Castaway Cay being a sea day, I decided to schedule a couple of more intensive treatments on Saturday and flip the reflexology to Thursday. I was quite exhausted from waking up early and driving for four hours, so it was like Heaven. I kept drifting off to sleep. It was absolutely wonderful, but the time went by too quickly, and soon enough I had to peel my comatose body off the table and return to my stateroom to get ready for the show.

The first night is usually kicked off with “Hercules,” a live vaudeville-style production based on the cartoon. If you’ve never seen the movie, it won’t make as much sense and you’ll miss some of the inside jokes. But it’s funny in a very corny sort of way, and Hades, Pain, and Panic always steal the show. This was a brand-new cast (this was actually their cruise performing for guests), so I was anxious to see how well they would do. We usually cruise enough to see the casts at the beginning of their contract and then again towards the end, and I love to see how well they come together as their time on board progresses.

The theater was pretty much deserted, so we decided to sit down front. Typically, we either like to sit all the way in the front or all the way in the back; we’re extreme show viewers. I was pleasantly surprised at how well the cast did, and I enjoyed seeing the twists incorporated by the new Hades/Pain/Panic team. Although the show is scripted, it allows some leeway for the cast to add some improv. The best part is towards the end, when Hades reads the top five things he must do to rule the cosmos. I guarantee that you will laugh! You will also enjoy the antics of the fifth moose/muse.

After the show, it was time to get ready for dinner. Beforehand, we decided to watch as much of the sailaway as possible. At 8 p.m., there was activity near the ropes. It was quite a unique site, as night had descended, and the Fort Lauderdale skyline provided a postcard backdrop of twinkling lights. We watched as the ship was untethered, and it backed slowly out of the dock. The verandah of 5650 provided a perfect vantage point. Unfortunately, it was dinner time, so we couldn’t watch the ship turn and head out to the ocean. Instead, we headed down one deck to Animators Palate.

Most of the restaurants are located aft: Palo is on deck 10, Beach Blanket Buffet is on 9, Animators is on 4, and Parrot Cay is on three. This makes them very convenient to my favorite stateroom. There is even a “secret” back stairway just outside of 5650 that will take you all the way up to the buffet. It’s handy for grabbing a quick snack or bringing breakfast or lunch down to enjoy on your verandah. The only restaurant that is in a different location is Triton’s, which is midship on deck 3.

We met up with our friends, as we had linked our reservations so we could dine together. Our server was Richard from Chile, with his sidekick Laszlo from Hungary, and they had us in stitches throughout the cruise. Animators Palate features a show, but it was nothing compared to the dinner theater performed by our dining team. I laughed so hard that my face actually hurt! Our head server was our old friend Rita from Brazil, so we were in excellent hands.
The look of the menus has changed, and Animators Palate has to be the best. They are hardbound with a little cartoon on the front that actually appears to move when you tilt the menu. There are three different ones, although my favorite was the Lion King. The menus are much more elegant and remind me of the early days of Disney Cruise Line.

I selected a variety of appetizers for my dinner. The seafood wrap at Animators is one of the best food items on board, and I love goat cheese so the duck-and-goat-cheese flatbread is an old favorite. That’s the great thing about a cruise ship. You can mix and match your food items any way you want and order as much as you want. It’s a great opportunity to try something new because you can always exchange it if you don’t like it. My very first experience with escargot was on the Disney Magic, at the urging of a server. Turns out I actually liked it! It tastes like mushrooms drowned in garlic butter.

The dining room was less populated than usual. Overall, this cruise felt a bit like “Voyage of the Ghost Ship,” as there were less than 2000 people on board. I don’t know if they altered the cancellation policy or people just couldn’t get there, but the crowd was definitely light. Oddly enough, the adult pool was packed every single day. Usually, the family pools do a booming business, while there are only a handful of people scattered in the adult area. This time, a lot of people must have left the kids at home, as the adult hot tubs were always backed with bodies, and the pool was full of swimmers and loungers.

After dinner, we would have typically gone to 80s Night, but my husband and I were exhausted from the long journey to the port. We said goodnight to our friends and crashed into bed. Oddly enough, this was the only time I’ve ever had noisy neighbors in 5650. It’s so far off the beaten path that it’s rare for anyone to pass it by, and there are no staterooms across the hall. The peace, quiet, and isolation are a big part of the reason why it’s my favorite. But this time, I could hear people talking loudly nearby, and they didn’t go away. I was already in my nightgown and to lazy to open the door to locate and glare at them, so I just turned on my white noise machine. Problem solved! Soon I was drifting into Disney dreams.

I never figured out which stateroom the yakkers were in or why they were out in the hall so much, although I did hear them throughout the cruise. That is very unusual in 5650, but I bring the white noise machine anyway. I felt sorry for the people closer to the head of the hallway, as there was a little boy outside banging on the door of one stateroom almost every time we passed. I don’t think he ever brought his key (or maybe his parents confiscated it so he couldn’t run up charges). My husband noticed that he had a sibling who delighted in leaving him out there pounding while she refused to answer the door or taunted him and then slammed it. That’s why I loved my far-aft home…there is only a stateroom on one side, and no one across the hall, which greatly reduces your chances of being near the Family from Hell.

I had pre-ordered breakfast, which served the dual purpose of acting as a wake-up call and giving us a chance to enjoy some quality verandah time eating outside. You can fill out a door hanger the night before, and your order will be delivered the next morning at the time you specify. They are usually so prompt that you can set your watch by them.

By the time we woke up, the ship had docked in Nassau. Despite the hurricane damage, they were already welcoming tourists. Since Castaway Cay was not going to be in any sort of shape for guests for at least a couple of weeks, our altered itinerary had us staying in Nassau overnight. Then we would head out for a day at sea on Saturday. Our port of disembarkation was still up in the air, although I was rooting for Port Canaveral. We couldn’t make a car reservation, since we didn’t know where we’d be, so we were planning to take the Disney bus. After hearing horror stories of the infamous four-hour ride from other guests, we were none too keen on experiencing it ourselves.

We always pretend that Nassau is a day at sea, so we had booked our typical spa treatments. For me, it was a hot stone massage, while Tony had his usual seaweed wrap. We also spent some quality verandah time and hole up in the Tropical Rainforest for a while. The Rainforest was nearly deserted, which surprised me, but I didn’t mind as that meant I had no trouble getting one of the four heated tile loungers. I love to curl up in them with a good book. The mild sauna and scented showers are also favorites. My husband likes the hotter steam rooms, but I have low blood pressure so I can’t handle those for too long. The mild sauna is just the right temperature for me to relax without getting light headed.

We met out friends for lunch at Beach Blanket Buffet. Normally I like to eat inside, in the air conditioning, but the weather was very pleasant so we opted to dine al fresco. The buffet has a nice selection of salads, main courses, and best of all, free soda. Disney recently introduced no-cost soda at the buffet and the deck 9 beverage station. Although I prefer iced tea, the free pop is a boon to families with soda-drinking kids or people who can’t live without their Coke or Sprite. They also upgraded the iced tea in the table-service restaurants from the Nestea swill that comes out of a tap to the fresh-brewed kind. But oddly enough, we were served tap iced tea at lunch in Parrot Cay on Saturday. I can tell the difference the moment the first drop touches my tongue. Oh well, it’s nice to get the real stuff most of the time. If your tastes are adventurous, you might want to try one of the flavored hot teas over ice. Back when tap tea was the standard, I used to get the hot stuff in either black currant or mint and pour it over a glass of ice for a real taste treat.

That night’s show was “The Golden Mickeys,” which is my favorite. My husband still prefers “Disney Dreams,” and I’ll admit that it’s a wonderful show. We’ve seen it over 40 times, since we’ve caught it twice on some cruises that have had an afternoon matinee, and I never get tired of it. But “Golden Mickeys” could have been written based specifically on my taste. It has my favorite Disney character (Stitch), my favorite villains (Ursula and Cruella), and one of my favorite Disney movie songs (“Son of Man” from Tarzan). Add in the tribute to Walt, the adorable Snow White number with the kids playing dwarves and the “Lion King” number that always reminds me of the Broadway play and you have a winner.

There are many other songs and movies represented, including “Sleeping Beauty,” “Mulan,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “Lady and the Tramp,” “Pocahontas,” and “Toy Story.” You may wonder how they fit all this into less than an hour…picture a series of rapid-fire Cliff Notes-version numbers. The cast was excellent, and my only complaint was that, as always, it was over much too quickly.

We were scheduled to dine in Palo that night, so after the show we hurried back to our stateroom to change from our vacation “uniform” of t-shirts and shorts to something a little more formal. Actually, I usually wear jeans rather than shorts to the theater because it tends to be quite cold. The attire on Disney Cruise Line tends to be quite casual, especially on the Wonder. But my husband and I enjoy dressing up for dinner, especially when we’re eating at Palo. It adds to that “special occasion” atmosphere.

Although I have favorite items in all of the restaurants on Disney’s ships, Palo is definitely a step above. It has its own galley where the food is made to order, just like in a land-based restaurant. In addition to the usual menu items, there are always one or two specials to tempt you and make your decision all the harder.

We were dining with our friends, and one of them comes from an Argentinean family. Coincidentally, our waiter Marcello was from Argentina, as was the chef. Needless to say, there was immediate bonding, and the chef, Christian, whipped us up a batch of chimichurri sauce. It is primarily meant to be eaten on beef, but I discovered that it was wonderful on my cod, too. It is very heavy on garlic, which I absolutely adore. Between the never-ending appetizers and my main course (the cod was one of the specials of the day), it was a challenge to save room for dessert. But there’s no way I would ever miss that famous Palo chocolate soufflé. My husband is not as big of a chocoholic as I am, so he opted for the pistachio tart. The panna cotta is good, too, but for me the soufflé is the ultimate. Normally it is topped with both chocolate and vanilla sauce, but lately I’ve been opting for vanilla only. It provides a pleasant counterpoint to the richness of the soufflé.

By the time we were done working our way through all the courses and chatting, it was too late to make the “Match Your Mate” show. Our friends were still game for partying, so they headed off to Route 66, but my husband and I were ready for bed. After all, we had to rest up for a another big day of spa appointments, shows, and eating!

Normally Saturday would be Castaway Cay day, but for the first time in 39 cruises we were going to miss the island. I think it was a lot easier knowing that in advance. I can only imagine the disappointment when the ship can get close to the island but cannot dock because of the wind or wave conditions. That almost happened to us last November, but somehow the captain managed to get the ship in. It would have been so sad if he’d had to give up after trying so hard. This time, we already knew that there was no possible way the hurricane-damaged island would be ready for us. Our sadness was tempered by the fact that at least there was no major damage to the dock or structures, and we were looking forward to the additional activities that we knew would be planned for our impromptu sea day.

Sure enough, our Navigator listed all sorts of fun things to look forward to the next day. There was a cooking demonstration, galley tours, “The Making of the Magic and Wonder,” and even a towel animal folding class. I had two spa appointments (spa taster and seaweed wrap) that unfortunately conflicted with most of the events. But my husband was looking forward to seeing the galley and picking up towel animal information for our website. How to make towel animals is one of the most frequent questions I receive.

Once again, we planned our breakfast order as our wake-up call and drifted off to dreamland. In the morning, I was vaguely aware when we left Nassau because I could hear the thrusters, but then I drifted back to sleep until the food arrived. Even though it was somewhat sad not to be at Castaway Cay, I was pleased to have extra time to enjoy the verandah. On a three-night cruise, I typically have to slot in some time for relaxing outside, and it’s hard to fit into a rush-rush schedule when you’ve got less than 72 hours on the ship. My husband and I take three-day cruises because they allow us to maximize our vacation time, but they fly by with lightning speed.

As much as I love Castaway Cay, it sends a subliminal signal that the cruise is almost over. A day on the island is always hectic, as we try to fit in as much beach time as possible. This time, even though it was Saturday, the change in routine made it feel less like the last day. Instead of hustling, I felt so relaxed. The only thing I had to hurry for was my spa appointment at 10:30 a.m.

I had scheduled a spa taster, which consists of a 25 minute massage, followed by a mini facial. I used to get the Absolute Face and Body treatment, which is a much longer version, but the price recently went up significantly. The spa taster is a more economical way to indulge. It goes by quickly, but then again, all spa treatments do.

While I was in the spa, my husband did his workout routine. When we cruise, he is great about actually doing some physical activity to counteract the effects of so much food. And speaking of food, when my treatment was done, it was almost time for another meal. In the Navigator, we had noticed an activity called “Eat Lunch with the Cruise Staff” at 12:30 in Parrot Cay. We always enjoy chatting with the crew members and learning more about behind-the-scenes life, so it sounded like lots of fun. We headed to the buffet and loaded up our plates. It was a combination of favorites that you usually find at Cookie’s Barbecue, such as lobster burgers and ribs, combined with some other yummy options like banana rum soup.

We looked around for the cruise staff table and were a bit stymied till I noticed a familiar blue shirt. The lunch was being hosted by Linsay from Canada…and it turned out that we were the only guests who showed up! I was very surprised, but I had noticed that a lot of the activities were sparsely attended. I don’t think that people on the three-day cruise are as used to the prospect of on-board activities, whereas people expect them on the four-day, with its normal day at sea. Oh well, we spent some pleasant time chatting with Linsay about life on the Wonder.
The rest of the afternoon was spent in a combination of lazing around the Rainforest and spa treatments. Both my husband and I had scheduled seaweed wraps. Tony also managed to slot in the towel animal class and the galley tour (he especially enjoyed the oven-fresh chocolate chip cookie served to the participants at the end). Onboard activities are a rare treat for us, since we’re usually on the three-day cruise. We have no four-day trips scheduled, and we won’t be on the Magic for a week-long trip until July of 2005, when we sailed from the West Coast.

Also, this was our last chance to see the “original” Wonder. Soon it will go into dry dock and be changed to be on a par with the Magic. The teen club will be moved to where the ESPN Skybox is currently located, and Common Grounds will become the Cove Café, a coffee bar for adults. Barrel of Laughs will be come the Diversions pub. We haven’t personally seen the changes on the Magic yet, but they will be in place on the Wonder by the time we sail again in November.

The seaweed wrap is one of my all-time favorite spa treatments, although I don’t usually get more than one over the course of a three-day cruise (my husband does at least two). First they slather warm seaweed all over your body, and then they wrap you up in foil like a baked potato. You are topped with a heavy comforter and baste for a while, during which you get a scalp and foot massage. Then, after showering off, you climb back onto the table to top it all off with a massage. By the end, you feel like you’ve sweated every last toxin out of your body. Earlier in the cruise, we had recommended this treatment to our friends, and they both loved it.

“Disney Dreams” is the grand finale show on the last evening. As much as I love “The Golden Mickeys,” this one is still my husband’s favorite. Occasionally he will even admit to getting a bit moist-eyed at the end. This show has been around since the beginning (“Hercules” has, too, but the third original show, “Voyage of the Ghost Ship,” was retired a while back). It’s a totally typical Disney story of a little girl named Anne Marie who meets Peter Pan and learns how to find her own magic in order to fly. Along the way, there are songs from “Cinderella,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” “The Little Mermaid,” and a powerful “Lion King” number.

The only annoyance was all the rude people who ignored the “No flash photography” announcement and flared their cameras throughout the whole show. I had noticed this at the two earlier shows, but it was downright obnoxious at “Disney Dreams.” The ones I like best are the idiots who have the cameras that strobe first, and then flash, for a double dose of annoyance. My husband often takes photos, but he is courteous and never uses the flash. In night vision mode, the pictures come out great. A while back, the cruise staff used to run herd on the worst offenders, but I haven’t seen the “No Flash Photography” rule enforced for quite a long time. I sure wish they would start up again.

After the show, my husband dragged me to “Who Wants to be a Mouseketeer” in Studio Sea. We have seen it in the Walt Disney Theater, and he was anxious to see how they adapted it as a small family show. In the scaled down version, you only have to answer five questions, and you are playing for an etched glass piece. You get two lifelines (50/50 and Ask the Audience), and even if you don’t make it, you still get a contestant pin. They really moved the show along at a good pace (one of the things I hated about the big-stage version was that, like the t.v. version, there was so much small talk and lagging). They actually managed to fit three contestants into half an hour. The first two didn’t make it all the way, and we had to leave before the third one was done in order to get ready for dinner. I was disappointed that we didn’t make it as contestants (they do it through random numbers) because I knew the answers to almost every question. Most were easy, but a few were rather tricky!

Our last night’s dinner was in Triton’s, the most elegant of the three restaurants. I really enjoy the green and blue lighting that subtly changes throughout the course of the meal. Once again, Richard and Laszlo kept us entertained, and the food was delicious. We slipped out temporarily before dessert to take photos at “’Til We Meet Again.” This event is held at 10 p.m. in the atrium. It’s a very informal photo opportunity with the characters, including people from the main stage, such as Peter Pan, Anne Marie, the Muses, Phil, Hermes, Hades, Pain, Panic, Mulan, and the Lion King singers. My all-time favorite, Stitch, is usually around, too. He used to hang out around the piano, but this time we found him up on deck 4. You can get quite a few photos with a wide variety of characters in a short amount of time if you are quick with your camera. Since the overall crowd on the ship was light, the attendance was a little less than usual. We snapped some great shots before returning to the restaurant for dessert.

We made our selections, but Richard had to bring some extra (and of course I had to taste those, too). I knew that we’d be skipping breakfast in the morning, so I figured a bit of indulgence wouldn’t hurt. By the time we were done, the 70s Party had already started, so my husband and I opted to head to our stateroom to pack. It was already pretty late, but we didn’t have to worry about putting our luggage out because we typically just keep it with us and carry it off ourselves. Our friends were ready to party, so they headed to Wavebands. I highly recommend the 70s Party; there are some fun dances, like “Car Wash,” and you’ll love the appearances by John Travolta, Gloria Gaynor, and the Village People. I always hate to miss it, but it’s rough when it’s on the last night. I wish that 80s night and 70s night could be flip-flopped, but it’s a problem logistically because the main stage dancers appear during 80s night, and on the last night they’re already busy with “Til We Meet Again.”

On disembarkation morning, we slept in a little later than usual because our friends were going to the sit-down breakfast, and we all wanted to ride the bus back to Orlando together. My husband and I rarely eat breakfast on the last morning because we’re so stuffed from the after-effects of stuffing our faces for three straight days. We were so happy to be docked at Port Canaveral. The prospect of several long hours cooped up in a bus was not my idea of the way to end such a lovely vacation. Over the years, I have gotten very spoiled with using Happy Limo or driving. This time, we would still be on a bus, but at least the ride would be mercifully short.
We sat near Guest Services, waiting for our friends and doing some people-watching to pass the time. Being a long-time student of psychology (I will complete my doctorate by the end of this year), it fascinates me to observe human and family dynamics. Real life is so much better than any movie! You can get a good snapshot of parenting styles and who is in control in a household simply by watching a few minutes of interaction.

The departing guests seemed to come in waves. For long stretches, the atrium would be empty. Then suddenly a huge crowd would descend, almost as though a silent signal had been broadcast, and there would be a line. It would clear out and remain empty until the subliminal message was broadcast again.

We ended up disembarking around 8:45 a.m. There was no line to leave the ship, and we’d all kept our luggage with us, so we didn’t have to pause to find it down in the terminal. Surprisingly, there were long lines at Customs, but they moved quickly. You should your ID and turn in your form, and hopefully you are waved through. The biggest delays are caused by the people who don’t pay attention and have the proper documents ready.

Disney’s disembarkation is a breeze compared to other cruise lines, which make you wait until they call your group. On Disney, you can linger and get off late, as we did this time. Or, if you are heading back to Disney World to visit the parks or have an early flight, you can choose to leave as soon as the ship is cleared by the authorities. It’s such a smooth, simple system. I’m amazed that other cruise lines don’t adopt it. On Royal Caribbean, disembarkation is only slightly less unpleasant than having flaming bamboo shoots stuck under your fingernails.

We were guided to a bus that was already pretty full. I didn’t mind, as that meant we wouldn’t have to wait too long to leave. But it also meant that we couldn’t find four seats together, so my husband and I split off from our friends and headed farther back. We got two seats together, but I think they were the last ones. A few more people trickled on, and I noticed that they had to split up in various parts of the bus.

It had been a long time since I’d taken Disney transportation. Years ago, they used to show a Disney Cruise Line video and Disney World trivia questions. Now, it’s just a long string of cartoons. I enjoyed that, as it kept my mind off the fact that the child in front of me was finding great amusement in playing with her “seat recline” button. How I missed riding in a private towncar! But I didn’t want to book anything with all the uncertainties surrounding where we would disembark. In November, hopefully I can book with Happy Limo for the usual Port Canaveral round trip.

Another trip was over, and goodness knows this had been a unique one. Really, our luck has been uncanny. It’s amazing that it took 39 cruises to hit one with so much disruption. This was a very unusual year; itinerary changes are fairly commonplace to avoid storms, but not cancellations. Previously, the only time Disney Cruise Line ever cancelled a cruise was during the Norwalk scare, and never before have they ever been forced to extend a cruise. I’ve always known the risks of sailing during hurricane season, and I figured that I would eventually deal with them in person. I thought they would probably involve itinerary changes, but I never considered the possibility of a changed embarkation location!

In retrospect, I guess I don’t mind that we couldn’t cancel because it turned out to be a great trip after all. However, I don’t know if I’d feel that way if we’d taken the bus and missed most of the first day on board. Oh well, the $100 credit was nice. Extra money always comes in handy for spa treatments. And I’m not letting this experience deter me…I already have reservations for the same three-day cruise next year, and I'm counting the days until #40 on Thanksgiving weekend.

If you'd like to see the "hurricane navigators," click here. Just remember that they are not representative of a typical three-day Wonder cruise.

1 comment:

Ben Had said...

I am more than disappointed in Disney Cruise Lines. There was no Castaway Cay during our cruise because the ship's captain said there was too much wind and current to safely dock when in reality there was an issue with the ships power during routine windy conditions. This does not put much faith in the ship when during routine conditions it can't go where it was suppose to. Without the Castaway Cay port they are overpriced and not worth the money you pay for Disney. There is no compensation for this either. You would think a "can't pass up" discount would at least apply.