My wife and I never thought we would be cruisers. In our minds we always pictured older people on a boat playing shuffle board and eating at a buffet, or playing slots in the onboard casino. As you may have read in my last article 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. Earlier that year, we had just done a Disney Resort vacation and didn’t want to go back so soon.
As this was going to be our first cruise, we were very apprehensive to pick a 7-day cruise, on the chance that we wouldn’t like it and be stuck on a boat for a week. Instead we picked the 4-Day Bahamian on the Disney Wonder, as it would be just long enough to get a sense of the ship, the service, and cruising in general.
As with any trip planning, using sites like this one will give you a good idea on what to expect in terms of wheelchair access, accommodations, tips and tricks. There is a wealth of information out there, one site in particular we found to be very helpful when researching our Disney cruise was DisneyCruislineBlog. It is full of information on the ships, destinations, dinning, port adventures ect… DCL’s website has a good amount of information for disabled travelers.
The Day Before: Accommodation & Getting to the Port
We decided to fly into Orlando a day before the cruise departed so that we could avoid any unforeseen issues, such as flight delays, weather issues etc. The ship will not wait for you, so it’s imperative that you arrive at the cruise terminal for check in. After arriving at the airport, we stayed at the Hyatt Regency, which is located in the Orlando International Airport. It has ADA compliant accessible rooms with the following features:
- Fire alarm system including emergency strobe light and strobe-light smoke detector
- Cordless phone
- Closed-caption television
- Lowered closet shelves
- Lowered thermostat and light switches
- Lowered entryway features, including peephole, door latch
- Lowered bathroom features, including door handle, towel hooks, towel rack
- Wide bathroom doors
- Bathroom grab bars
- Raised toilet seat
The 4 day Bahamian cruise sails out of Port Canaveral FL, but Disney Cruise Lines, (DCL), also sails out of a variety of other ports depending on your destination. You have many options on getting to the port, such as taxis, self-parking or using Disney Cruise Line transportation from either the Orlando International Airport or from one of Disney’s resort hotels. During the cruise booking process you have the ability to add Disney’s ground transportation service from the airport to the port and back to the airport or to one of the Disney’s hotels after the cruise.
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. 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 it’s a nice service to have and it takes some of the hassles of luggage management out of the way. You should state that we’ve never actually used this service.
Boarding & Check-In
Once at Port Canaveral, the check-in process is well organized. 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 aka Cast Members, who will help guide you. 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. I 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 to grab a snack. Use this time to get a deck plan and get familiar with the location of the elevators, accessible washrooms, 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 will go into more details later on about the layout of the ship. 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.
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!
The Disney Wonder has 16 accessible staterooms, (10 Oceanview & 6 Interior). We stayed in room 7686, which was an Oceanview room located at the back of the boat, and provided able space to maneuver the chair around the cabin, washroom and the outside veranda without any issues. 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)
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 you way up to the sailing away party on the main deck, (9 & 10 ), or find a spot in the Adults Only section, order a drink and enjoy the quiet as the ship pulls away from the dock.
Access around the Ship: Navigation & Activities
The outside deck has large enough walking lanes to maneuver a wheelchair or scooter around, without any need to move deckchairs or tables out of the way. In the main pool areas, you will have to deal with a lot of children and families walking and running around. As for the pools themselves, you have access up to all the pools on the ship. If requested, a lift chair is available to transfer you from your wheelchair into the pool.
Getting around the rest of the ship didn’t pose too many challenges, as the transition doors from the outside decks into the ship were either automatic opening or had large buttons to hit to open the door. You do have to be careful of the lips on these doors, as they may catch your front tires and could impede your movement. I found that there always seemed to be a cast member nearby that would offer any assistance. Each evening you are given the next day’s navigator, which outlines all the ships activities, broken down by age categories for the day. This is great, should you want to watch the latest Disney release in the theater for free (Popcorn is extra), take part in a wine tasting seminar, or just relax by the pool or up on one of the sun decks.
Deck 3, 4 & 5 is where you will find the Main Atrium, many of the Dining locations, shops, Movie Theater, the kids clubs and the adult clubs. Disney did a fantastic job on recreating the look and feel of a vintage ocean liner of 40’s with an Art Deco look and feel, but with all the state of the art technologies you would expect.
There are two shops on Deck 3 – Mickey’s Mates and Treasure Ketch. Both shops are arranged with ample space to maneuver around, and if there was something you wanted to see but couldn’t reach, a cast member was able to get it down for you. Both the Walt Disney and the Buena Vista Theatres have accessible seating locations for wheelchairs/scooters, and any time I was in either location, there was an available spot to park the chair.
For the adults, there is a collection of clubs with their own style and feeling, such as a nightclub, sports bar, to a piano lounge. Navigating the different clubs in some cases will be tricky depending on where you want to sit, as some are smaller than others and you may need to move some tables/chairs around to get your chair through. The key here is to arrive early so that you can claim your spot as it can be difficult to move tables and chairs if there are plenty of people already in the club. For the most part there was no section of the clubs that I couldn’t access. We had a great time, visiting all the different clubs and being able to spend a relaxing time having a cocktail in the piano bar before dinner, or hitting the nightclub after dinner with friends.
Dining: Restaurants, Cafés, Buffets & Eateries
Disney uses a rotational dining system, which means you eat in a different location every night. Your serving staff rotates with you, so they can get to know everyone’s likes and dislikes when it comes to how they want their food prepared, food allergies and drink choices. You rotate between 3 locations; Parrot Cay, Lumiere’s and Animator’s Palate, each has its own theme with a Disney look and feel. Like any restaurant, your table might be located on the main pathway, or tucked away in the corner. On this cruise, I don’t know if the booking agent missed that we were in an accessible stateroom as our table location was in the back corner. This posed a bit of a problem, navigating my chair past all the other tables that had guests already seated. It would have been more of a problem for someone in a larger electric chair or wider wheelchair. Since our first cruise, this hasn’t happened again, and every other table location has been right off a main path, thus making it easy to access the table and to transfer into a regular chair.
In addition to the three rotational dining locations, the Wonder has other dining options, both informal and formal. Topsiders on Deck 9 is a buffet that serves, Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner at specific hours of the day. It can be crowded at times, but a cast member will ask to assist you in getting anything you want from the buffet. I found this really helpful when it was busy or if I couldn’t reach something that was near the back. For something more formal, there is fine dining at Palo on deck 10. This dining option requires a reservation and has an additional fee associated with it. We didn’t do Palo on the Wonder, so I can’t comment on any barrier issues you might encounter. Apart from everything I mentioned, the Wonder does have some counter service locations and drink stations you can use, and like in the buffet, a cast member will assist you as needed.
Bahamas Itinerary: Exploring the Ports
The Itinerary for the 4 day cruise was Nassau in the Bahamas, Castaway Cay, (Disney’s private island), a day at Sea, and back to Port Canaveral. For our stop in the Nassau, we decided to the Discover Atlantis port adventure at the Atlantis Resorts on Paradise Island. If you’re not familiar with Nassau, it is the capital city of the Bahamas. There is a strong British influence throughout the island, such as architecture, and driving on the left hand side.
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, 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. In Nassau, because we had a port adventure, we assembled in one of the lounges. 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. We were given Pinocchio!
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.
Once off the ship, there is a small welcome building that you can explore that has a collection of small shops, with your typical tourist fare of merchandise from the Bahamas. The good thing about this section is that you won’t be bugged by people wanting to braid your hair or offer you other goods, they will be found outside of the port and in the nearby Straw market. Getting around here shouldn’t pose any problems, as everything is on a single level. The stalls are small, and you may have to ask for help to see certain items. We didn’t spend much time here, as our port adventure group was making out way to the exit of the port to board our bus to Atlantis. Initially there was some confusion as where that bus would be, as there was a lot of other tours, taxis, vans around that did make for some head scratching on where we were supposed to go, as our local guide was also confused and that didn’t help.
Once our tour guide got the right information, we went to our tour-bus. Our bus didn’t have a lift on it, and I don’t think any buses being operated by the tour company did, you will have to be transferred on the bus, and the chair put into the bus with you. The drive from the port to Atlantis was a short drive through the capital, but it will let you see of some of the sights, and your bus driver will point out some historic facts along the way. The tour of the Atlantis Aquarium itself was approximately 45 minutes, and was led by a local tour guide. Every part of the tour was wheelchair accessible, and you will see a wide variety of marine life, spread out over 14 exhibits and 13 lagoons. The layout of the Aquarium was well done, and the sheer number of sea creatures was well over 50,000. There are underground passages and walkways that let you see the marine life from below the water line. This made for some excellent viewing of sharks and barracudas. However, the underground tunnels did have some uneven pathways, which required some extra care when maneuvering our wheelchair in those sections.
After the tour is over, you have the ability to stay on resort and explore the casino, and indoor shopping. Due to the nature of the tour, the water park was not included. There is a separate excursion that can be booked that allows you to partake in the water park. As with the Aquarium, the rest of the resort was very wheelchair accessible, with ramps and automatic doors throughout. The casino is reminiscent of a Las Vegas casino in terms of layout and maneuverability. In terms of the indoor shopping, this included various high end stores. Shuttles back to the ship departed every half hour and the last bus departs at 5pm.
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.
The Disney’s Castaway Cay Island was our next port of call. This is Disney’s private island for its Bahamian and Caribbean cruises and your ship will be the only ship docked on the day you arrive. This affords the ability to see and do the island’s amenities without feeling crowded. As soon as you get off the ship, you will have full access to any part of the island, due to the many walkways and trails. For those with limited mobility, there is a tram that will take you from the port to the main area of the island, which is about a 5 – 10 min walk from the ship. The trams do feature a section in the front that will accommodate wheelchairs. These trams run constantly throughout the day on the island.
There are three beaches for guests: one for families, one for families and teens, and another exclusively for adults. You will be able to access the first two beaches from the main part of the island, but will either have to walk to the far end or take another tram to Serenity Bay. Disney provides a limited number of complimentary beach wheelchairs, to allow guest to ability to maneuver on the sand. These are first come, first served – they cannot be pre-booked. There are multiple washroom locations throughout the island, and most will have one large stall, but with a tilted mirror, and some handrails. The stall door locks may be hard to close for those with dexterity issues, as it is a tiny latch lock.
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. We booked a Stingray Adventure, which got you up close and personal with stingrays, allowing you to touch and feed them. You will need to transfer to a sand wheelchair or walk down to the water in order to participate in this excursion. After feeding, you also have the chance to head further out into the lagoon to snorkel with more stingrays. All the rays here have all been de-barbed, but you still have to be mindful of not getting your fingers to close to their mouth, as it can hurt if they close down on your finger.
After our Stingray adventure, we made our way down to the Serenity Bay tram. Once it arrived, we got the drivers attention so he could lower the ramp in order for me to wheel up into the tram. The drive down to the far end of the island isn’t long, and you will actually go down an old abandoned runway to get to Serenity Bay. Here you will find the location for the 5k and bicycle paths. Once we arrived at Serenity Bay, we again had to get the drivers attention to let us off the tram. I recommend getting here as early as possible, as there are a limited number of hammocks, and lounge chairs close to the beach entrance. These 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 thru 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.
Last Day at Sea
The last full day was a sea day, where you can take full advantage of things to do on the ship. Here you will take full advantage of the Navigator to do as much or as little on the sea day. By the final day at sea, we became very familiar with the layout of the ship and how to locate the “better” elevators for short wait times. This will come in very handy on Pirate Night, this is where everyone can dress up like a pirate, and your evening dinner is also pirate themed. After late dinner is over, there will be on the main deck, Pirates in the Caribbean show and fireworks. Wheelchair space is limited, and it’s best to get a spot as soon as possible, or if you can find a spot on the above deck to see the show and/or the fireworks as it too will get very crowded for this event.
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.
Thoughts About Cruising with Disney
Cruising isn’t for everyone, and when we first decided to take out first one, we both thought that it was going to be our first and last one. How wrong were we in the end to think that! We have since been on 3 more Disney Cruises. I can only speak about Disney, but I will say they do a great job at making sure your trip is as wonderful as possible, and will truly go out of their way to provide you with top quality customer service. Is there room for improvements when it comes to dealing with people with disabilities; yes there is. 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 at times. Shore excursions especially need to better highlight what to expect around these areas.