As you may have read in my last articles, my wife and I are Disney nuts. Back in 2010 we took the plunge and became Disney Vacation Club members. As part of signing up, we received a special allotment of points that had to be used up within a short amount of time, so we decided to use them on a Disney Cruise. As you can see from my other two cruise articles, we are hooked and continue to think about future cruises with Disney.
We learned from our 7 day Eastern Cruise, that you get the best deals if you book your next cruise right on the ship. Most offers will comprise of a package discount, on-board credit, and a lower deposit required at time of booking. So we booked our next cruise, the 7 day Western Caribbean for May 2014.
As with any trip planning, using travel sites will give you a good idea on what to expect in terms of wheelchair access, accommodations, and tips and tricks. There is a wealth of information out there and one of the sites we use is the DisneyCruiseLineBlog. It is full of information on the ships, destinations, dining, Port Adventures, and all things about cruising with Disney. DCL’s website has a good amount of information that you can refer to in their official DCL section for disabled travelers located HERE.
Like our first cruise, flew into Orlando a day before the cruise departed so that we could avoid any unforeseen issues, such as flight delays, weather issues etc. Again we stayed at the Hyatt Regency, which is located in the Orlando International Airport. It has ADA compliant accessible rooms, and for a full list of what these rooms have, you can read this in my first cruise report here.
Like the 4 day Bahamian cruise, our 7 Day Western Caribbean sailed out of Port Canaveral. There are several options to get to the port: taxis, self-parking or Disney transportation from the Orlando airport or any of the Disney resorts. During the cruise booking process you have the ability to add Disney’s ground transportation service from the airport to the port and back or to one of the Disney’s hotels after the cruise. Disney operates buses with wheelchair lifts and, at booking time, they will ask you if you need one. For more information on this service I recommend talking to a cruise booking agent, or online at Disney Cruise Line’s website. For wheelchair travelers going directly from the airport, or from a Disney property, it’s a nice service to have and it takes some of the hassles of luggage management out of the way. If you choose to utilize Disney’s transportation, you let the Hyatt staff know at check-in that you will be sailing with Disney, and on sail day, your luggage will be picked up from your room in the morning and will travel to the ship. Your luggage will be delivered to your stateroom at some point on Embarkation day.
Check-in & Boarding
The check in process was the same experience, as with previous cruises. First like in an airport, you go through the security screening process. Wheelchair users will bypass the metal detector and a manual inspection will be administered. From there you will take the elevator up to the second floor to the check-in area. This area can be very crowded, so mobility may be limited as you make your way to the check-in counter. DCL has amazing customer service, and every aspect of the check-in process is helped along with some wonderful employees. The check-in counter is all one height unfortunately and doesn’t have a section for a wheelchair user to access, but a cast member will work with you to check you in. You’ll receive your Key To The World, (KTTW) card, which will open your stateroom and can be used to charge purchases.
After check in, you will be assigned a boarding number and you’ll have to wait until that number is called before you can board the ship. Depending on when you arrive at the terminal and your boarding number, you may be waiting around for a while until your number is called. On a few occasions, you might get pulled aside by a cast member and allowed on the ship earlier than your assigned boarding time. I recommend that once checked in, move as close to the front as possible so you are seen. We have been moved up in priority a few times and didn’t have as long a wait to board.
Boarding the ship was easy, as the gangplank from the terminal to the ship was at a gradual grade and had plenty of space to maneuver any type of wheelchair, manual or powered. Once on the ship you’re welcomed aboard, and are directed to various restaurants for lunch, or you have the ability to find food on the pool deck. Use this time to get a deck plan and get familiar with the location of the elevators, accessible washrooms, and your stateroom, as it will save you time getting around. Some elevator locations have a higher traffic level than others – ie any of the ones in the Atrium. This will be very important with a wheelchair, as the elevators are small, and you may be waiting a while to get one that can fit the chair. I went into great detail on the layout of the Disney Fantasy in my last article 7 Day Eastern Caribbean Cruise on the Disney Fantasy, so please read it for a more comprehensive review. In addition, check out the ship’s Navigator so you can determine the time of the sail away party and any additional activities happening that evening. Each evening you are given the next day’s navigator, which outlines all the ships activities, broken down by age categories for the day. You can find old Navigators on the DCLBlog’s site to get a good idea of what to possibly expect.
Once you’ve finished with lunch, it can be a good idea to head to your stateroom to check it out, or nap, or whatever else you’d like to do. Your luggage might not yet be at the door, but don’t worry, it will be there eventually!
The Disney Fantasy, and her sister ship the Dream are larger than the Wonder and Magic. Both have 24 accessible staterooms, (20 Oceanview (2 are concierge rooms) & 4 Interior). We stayed in room 6686, which was an Inside Oceanview room located at the back of the boat, and like all the other wheelchair accessible rooms, provided ample space to maneuver the chair around the cabin, and washroom. This room didn’t have an outside veranda, but it had two large portholes that you could look out from. All accessible staterooms come with the following features (as described from DCL website):
All Disney Cruise Line ships offer accessible staterooms and suites. These staterooms are equipped with the following features for Guests with disabilities:
- 32″ (minimum) doorways
- Ramped bathroom thresholds
- Open bed frames
- Additional phones in the bathroom and on the nightstand
- Bathroom and shower handrails
- Fold-down shower seats
- Hand-held shower heads
- Lowered towel and closet bars
- Emergency call buttons
Disney Cruise Line offers special equipment for Guests with disabilities. The following is available upon request for use in any stateroom:
- Bed board
- Portable toilet
- Raised toilet seat
- Shower stool
- Transfer bench
- Stateroom Communication Kits containing door knock and phone alerts, phone amplifier, bed shaker notification, a strobe light smoke detector and a Text Typewriter (TTY)
As in previous cruises, before the ship leaves port, there is a mandatory emergency evacuation drill that all guests and crew members must perform. On your KTTW card, you’ll see a prominent letter in the lower left quadrant. This letter corresponds to your mustering station. During the drill, make your way to that station – there are Cast Members to help direct you along the way. Depending on your stateroom location, your mustering station might be on another deck. For the drill, I was able to use the elevator to get down to our station, but in the real event of an emergency, elevators will not be available and you will need to use the stairs. Once the drill is over, you can make your way up to the sailing away party on the main deck, (11 & 12), or find a spot in the Adults Only section, or the Sun Deck on Deck 13, and order a drink and enjoy the quiet as the ship pulls away from the dock.
The Itinerary for the 7 day cruise was:
- Day at Sea
- Cozumel, Mexico
- Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands
- Falmouth, Jamaica
- At Sea
- Castaway Cay, (Disney’s private island)
- Back to Port Canaveral
Ports & Excursions
For all port adventures, you have to register before your cruise or at the Port Adventures desk onboard. I recommend booking the adventures once the booking window opens in the months leading up to your sail date. Some adventures fill up quickly and you don’t want to be left out on any activities. The port adventure listing for each port can be accessed from the Disney Cruise Line site. In the write up for each adventure, it states the activity level – ie mild, moderate or high, and if wheelchairs are allowed. In some adventures only collapsible wheelchairs are allowed. In other adventures no wheelchairs are allowed at all.
Once the ship docks in any port, you must wait for the “all clear” announcement to be made before you can disembark. As with all Port Adventures you will be provided your tickets the night before, that will tell you where you must meet up before leaving the ship. This was so the group could stay together during the tour and so that we could sign in. From here, depending on the size of the group, you are divided into smaller groupings and given a character sticker that will signify what group you’re in and who to follow to get to your adventure.
The process of disembarking the ship to be fairly organized; with some the odd hiccups of not knowing what to do at times, but for the most part the cast members were around to answer your questions. Before leaving the staging area, they asked the passengers in wheelchairs, scooters and anyone with a mobility concern to come to the front of the line. We were told to take the elevators down to Deck 1 and then wait for the main group. Getting off the ship could be tricky depending on the angle of the ramp off the boat. This will vary from ship to ship and port to port, with some being a mild angle to others with a more severe angle, which will require assistance getting on and off the ship.
For our port stop in Cozumel, we booked the 12 Metre Regatta adventure. Yes I said regatta! Going into this we had no idea what to expect. The adventure description on DCL’s website said “Guests with collapsible wheelchairs can participate but must have someone accompany them who are able to assist with movements on and off of the vessels.” So we were adventurous and booked this excursion. Leading up to it, I was very nervous, as I wondered if I would be able to transfer to and from the boat, and little did I know just what I was in store for.
Once off the ship, we were directed down the pier to a section where a smaller tender was waiting for us. At this point this is where things started to become an adventure, as you had to make your way down a flight of stairs that had no railings to a platform that the tender boat was moored. Timing is key; as the boat was bobbing up and down, and transferring was tricky. Naturally if you aren’t able to transfer easily from your chair, or have issues boarding a small boat, then I wouldn’t recommend this port adventure.
Once on the tender, they folded my chair and put it off to the side, and then proceeded to another pier to pick up some more guests that were going to participate on the regatta. They divided the groups into two teams, Stars & Stripes, and True North IV, and we got put on Canada’s boat True North IV; Yay Canada! Both yachts were anchored in the ocean, so you will need to be able to transfer from the tender to the yachts. As the boats are dealing with the water conditions, this may be challenging for those who don’t have good strength or balance issues, but the crew was very helpful. Once on board, the captain will assign everyone a role on the yacht (non-active roles are available, if you’re physically unable to do them). I was given the role of timer, and Candy was the cheer squad. After some pre-race drills, to make sure everyone knew what his/her role was, we started the race. Let me say this, you are an active participant in the race and the operation of the yacht. You will be grinding, winching, or trimming the sails, at specific points in the race. At some points in the race, the yacht will pitch at a steep angle, and for anyone who doesn’t have good balance or good leg strength (like me), you will have to brace yourself and hold on tight or risk falling overboard.
The race itself was amazing, and everyone had a blast doing their parts. I was very impressed of how close this recreated a real America’s Cup race experience and our captain and his crew did a great job at keeping everyone in line, and making sure people executed there role at the proper times. In the end, we won the race, beating out the other boat by a nose. After the race, the captain let us move freely about the ship, even taking turns to pilot her for a period of time, as everyone else took pictures, and relaxed with beer or water that was provided by the crew. Once the yacht anchored, your tender will come back to pick you up and before taking you back to the ship, they will stop off at the gift shop where you can purchase pictures from your race, buy other souvenirs and even have some rum punch. I stayed on the tender, and just let Candy go check out the shop and bring me back some punch.
Overall, this was by far the best shore excursion we have even done, and would recommend it to anyone who is on the fence or is looking for something different to do. Transferring is going to be the big red flag for anyone thinking about wanting to do this excursion, but if you have done similar things in the past or are psychically able, then this is a must do.
Our next port of all was Grand Cayman, where we didn’t do any port adventures. For this port, the ship was anchored off shore, and required you to tender from the ship to the port. Because of this, we were hesitant of booking any shore excursions; until we tested out what it would the transferring process would look like. We did have rougher seas that day, and this made us think twice about wanting to transfer from the ship to the tender. The rest of our day was spent up lounging around Satellite Falls on Deck 13. There is a wading pool that you will need assistance getting in and out of. No lift of lifeguard is available up there, so do take that into account if you want to use it.
Our next port of call was Falmout, Jamaica. Here we booked the Chukka Taste of Jamaica at Good Hope Estate. As with other tours, we met up in our designated location on the ship, signed in and then proceeded to disembark the ship. Before leaving the staging area, they asked the passengers in wheelchairs, scooters and anyone with a mobility concern to come to the front of the line. We were told to take the elevators down to Deck 1 and then wait for the main group. Do take note of the ramp grade and request assistance if needed.
The port at Falmouth is the fourth and newest port in Jamaica, and was DCL’s first time there. There was an official welcoming ceremony for the ships arrival. Once off the ship, we met our tour guide who guided us to the tour bus loading area. We had the misfortune to get caught in a quick moving downpour that soaked us to the bone before we were able to get on our bus. Our bus didn’t have a lift on it, and like our Bahamas Atlantis port adventure we did on our 4 day cruise, I don’t think any buses being operated by the this tour company did either. As a result you will have to be transferred on the bus, and the chair put into the bus with you. The drive from the port to Good Hope Estate was a short 25- minute drive through parts of the city and the countryside, but it will let you see of some of the sights, and your bus driver will point out some historic facts along the way. This tour does have periods of walking over some uneven surfaces and some steep inclines. You will be exploring an old plantation that was built in the 1700s and has been restored to its former glory. As a result, you have to contend with dirt paths, going over grass, and old flagstones around the house. The house itself was easy to navigate, but did require some alternate paths to contend with stairs. You got to learn about the history of the plantations, and the people of Jamaica. After the tour we were taken to another building on the plantation where a buffet-style lunch inspired by the flavors of Jamaica was provided. I was looking forward to some true Jamaican dishes such as curried chicken with mango chutney, fresh Escovietch fish, and fried plantains, my favorite! A vegetarian option, a veggie bean stew, is also available. At the end they serve lemongrass iced tea, coconut drops and banana muffins that use fruits grown on the estate. The tour itself was quite good, and if you’re a history buff, or have a desire to try some authentic Jamaican food, (side note, my wife is from Trinidad, so I am used to Caribbean spicy foods. They did tone down on the spices for tourists), then I recommend you do it.
Note: I want to point out that if you use an electric wheelchair, they are not permitted on this tour. You can rent a manual wheelchair to use, but you must be mobile and able to navigate using your own power. The grounds of the estate are quite uneven – roots, uneven flagstones, steep grades and it can be difficult to maneuver with a manual wheelchair. I recommend having someone in your party that can help navigate the rough terrain.
When the tour ended, everyone was directed to the Trading House, the only store of its kind in the Caribbean, where you can shop for unique Jamaican-made souvenirs before returning to the port. The shop was a good size, and I was able to maneuver around it without any difficulty, again depending on how crowded the shop is, may cause some challenges. After some confusion on what bus to take back to the port, we made our way back and had some free time to explore the many shops in the port. This was the best port we have experienced so far in our short cruising life. It is very spacious and all the shops are easy to access and navigate (depending on how crowded they are) we did buy some duty free Appleton’s Rum and some world famous Blue Mountain Coffee for our friends. You have the choice to head back to the ship or continue to explore the city on your own, as long as you made it back to the ship in time. That night was Pirate night celebrations, and as I mentioned in my first cruise article getting a “parking spot” is key and should be done as soon as possible, as viewing locations do fill up fast. You can view the show and fireworks from Deck 11 in a designated wheelchair area or try to get a spot on the railings on Deck 12 overlooking the stage.
As with all ports of call, once back at the ship, there is a short embarkation process that each guest must follow. The KTTW card for all returning guests will be scanned – this checks that the person returning matches up with the photo on file and it updates the passenger roster so at any time the ship can tell the number of passengers still ashore. All bags will be x-rayed and each passenger will go through the metal detector. This process is reminiscent of the security process at many airports. As mentioned earlier, depending on how the angle of the gangplank, you may need assistance getting up it to go through security.
We had one more Day at Sea before our last port of call; Disney’s Castaway Cay. Instead of covering over a lot of the same information here, you can review in more detail Castaway Cay from my previous DCL articles here.
A variety of shore excursions are available to book before or on the island. These include bicycle and/or personal watercraft rental, cabana with or without massages overlooking the ocean, snorkeling, para-sailing, volleyball and basketball, etc… Again, with each excursion, there will be restrictions on accessibility.
For this cruise, we booked the Castaway Cay 5K race, (see my other article to read our Port Adventure while on the Wonder). One of the things Candy and I have committed to accomplish in the New Year is a 5k and 10k run at the RunDisney Marathon Weekend event in January 2015. We used this chance to kick off our training for those races. There is no cost to participate in the 5K race, but you still have to register for it, as it is an official event. Those who do participate in the race will receive course instructions, and a racing bib. After meeting up at the designated location, and waiting for the all clear, we made our way off the ship (You will be the first guest off the ship) down to the starting location. The route was simple: a quick jaunt to a landing strip, a loop around a bike path, out to the adults-only beach turnaround, another loop around the bike path, then back to the start/finish line. At the halfway point, race guides served water and support.
The event was casual, and, despite the official clock at the start/finish line, it was not designed to be competitive. In fact, it drew a wide range of participants, from the large group of walkers to joggers/runners, and had every age range represented. We got a lot of praise from other guests who were passing us on the trams heading down to the adults-only beach, and overall it was a positive accomplishment to have done it. For our effort, we were awarded certificates and a medal (plastic, but still nice to have), and we also could pick up finisher T-shirts at stall at the end of the race.
From the race, we headed back down to Serenity Bay to take a dip in the water and relax before heading back to the ship. We were lucky enough this time to find a spot close to the entrance, as usually these spots fill up fast, and it means travelling further down the beach in order to find a place to sit and relax. Without a sand wheelchair, this will be problematic navigating the sand, as well as getting down to the water. The beach isn’t soft white sand; instead it’s full of shells and rocks, so keep that in mind if you’re going to make your way out into the shallows. I recommend water shoes or close fitting sandals so you don’t hurt your feet.
Around lunchtime there is a buffet that serves up some excellent food, ribs, burgers, salads etc that is worth staying to taste. The buffet is available at Serenity Bay and at the restaurants located close to the family and teen beaches. As with the ship, you can order drinks from the Cast Members who walk around the beach, as well as purchase items from the shops with your KTTK card. After your time at Serenity Bay, you have the option to take the tram back or walk it, which should take you around 10 – 15 mins depending on your pace, and from there you can visit more of the small shops, grab some drinks or head back to the ship again by catching another tram or walking from the central location.
On your final night, you will be asked to leave your luggage out to be collected for pick up in the terminal. This helps alleviate some of the debarkation congestion that is encountered when everyone is getting off the ship. There is a tight timeline for this, as they have to get the ship ready for the next cruise to depart later on that day. During this time, the hallways are full of luggage for a period of time, and like it was on the embarkation day, navigating the halls could be problematic. After you get off the ship, you will find your luggage station and collect your bags (porters will be available to hire to help carry you bags), you will pass through customs, and from there catch your mode of transportation either back to the airport or resort or back to your car in the parking lot.
Author Note: I continue to take great pride in having a community to be able to share my travel experiences with others, and have a common desire to know as much as possible on the accessibility of different travel destinations. With sites like this, I hope we can continue to help tour operators strive to improve on the level of access and detailed information to help better educate the disabled traveler. Not every person with a disability is the same, and we all have different levels of mobility, strength, and we may not travel with a companion who can aid us. My goal, as I continue to get feedback from my readers, is to highlight more about what is important to them in being able to make informative choices when deciding on if a particular trip location or shore excursion is something that they can do and most of all enjoy.