As you may have read in my last articles; Adventures by Disney: Germany & 4 day Bahamian cruise, 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.
We loved it and couldn’t wait to do another one. As this was going to be our first 7 day cruise, we were very excited to spend more time sailing with Disney, and one of her newest ships the Disney Fantasy in 2013, which was launched a few months before our cruise.
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.
For this trip, we decided to a Land & Sea vacation, and use our DVC points to stay at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, (AKL) a Disney property. We used the Disney Magical Express, (DME), bus service from the Orlando International Airport to the resort. DME is a free service for guests staying on WDW property. You can request a bus with a wheelchair lift, for those that are unable to transfer onto the bus.
We booked a studio room for the 3 days prior to our cruise, and after arriving late to the resort, sometime after 1am, we received some Disney magic, as our studio was upgraded to a 1 bedroom villa overlooking the savannah. Disney has a limited number of accessible rooms available in each resort, and availability will vary depending on the time of the year and how far out you book your stay. AKL is an African themed resort that is wonderfully designed. The main focus of this resort is how it is situated as part of a 33 acre savannah, with a collection of different African indigenous animals roaming the surrounding grounds. A set of rooms have a direct savannah view, allowing you to see giraffes, zebras, gazelles, African birds and other animals. The resort is accessible – the elevators are on the other side of the front desk there is a sufficient amount of accessible parking spots. Disney’s bus transportation service is located in front of the Jambo House entrance. Most buses are equipped with wheelchair lifts or ramps into the bus. Depending on where you’re going, and the time of day, your specific bus may be full or all wheelchair spots are taken with other guests. Of all the Disney resorts we have stayed on, this is one my favourites and is one of our DVC home resorts.
Like the 4 day Bahamian cruise, our 7 Day Eastern 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 from the resort, you will receive a package on your last night at the resort that will provide you with instructions on where to meet the group and what to you with your luggage. On your 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. Cruisers meet at a designated location in the main lobby in the Jambo house roughly 1hr before the bus’ pickup time. There is a CM present, so you can use this time to go over any last minute questions.
Check-in and 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. 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. 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 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. 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!
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 6186, which was an Oceanview room located at the back of the boat, and provided ample 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)
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.
Access to Decks
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.
I found the outside decks on the Fantasy to be larger than on the Wonder. On these decks there was plenty of space in the walking lanes to maneuver a wheelchair or scooter around, without any need to move deckchairs or tables out of the way. Like on the Wonder, in the main pool areas on Deck 11, 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.
Decks 3, 4 & 5 is where you will find the Main Atrium, many of the dining locations, shops, the movie theater, the kids clubs and the adult clubs. As with the older ships, the Fantasy has been similarly designed. There is a look and feel of a vintage ocean liner of 40’s with an Art Deco vibe throughout the ship, but with all the state of the art technologies you would expect.
There are three shops on Deck 3 – Mickey’s Mainsail, Whitecaps and Sea Treasure. All the 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; La Piazza; an Italian inspired lounge, Ooh La La; a Champagne bar, O’Gill’s Pub; an Irish Pub, Skyline; views from some world famous cities, and The Tube; a British inspired nightclub. 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. Skyline was our personal favorite location, as it had some amazing drinks from around the world to sample.
All of Disney’s ships use 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. On the Fantasy you will rotate between 3 locations; Enchanted Garden, Royal Court and Animator’s Palate, each with their own theme. Like any restaurant, your table might be located on the main pathway, or tucked away in the corner. Since our first cruise, we have been placed at table locations 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 Fantasy has other dining options, both informal and formal. Cabana’s on Deck 11 is a buffet that serves, breakfast, lunch and dinner. 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. The Fantasy & Dream have two fine dining options, Palo & Remy on deck 12. These dining options require a reservation and both have an additional fee associated with it. We booked Remy Champagne Brunch on one of our sea days, and a Dinner at Palo for my Birthday. Both locations were easy to navigate, and they were able to put us at a table with a great view of the ocean. Apart from everything I mentioned, the Fantasy has some counter service locations and drink stations you can use, and like in the buffet, a cast member will assist you as needed.
Ports and Excursions
The Itinerary for the 7 day cruise was two days at sea, St. Maarten (or Saint Martin), San Juan, Puerto Rico, one more day at sea, Castaway Cay, (Disney’s private island), and back to Port Canaveral.
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. For our stop in St. Maarten, we didn’t do any port adventures, as most of them weren’t wheelchair accessible, so instead we just got off the ship for a short walk around the base of the pier to a set of duty-free shops. These can be very crowded, and at times hard to navigate with a wheelchair. For those guests not doing any port adventures, you can disembark the ship at any point during the day. Getting off the ship from Deck 1, 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. In St. Maarten, the angel of the ramp was at a very manageable angle and did not cause me any issues. 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. 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.
Our next port of call was San Juan – Puerto Rico. Here we booked the Castillo San Cristóbal, A World Heritage Site – Walking Tour. We received our tickets the night before that went over where to meet up before leaving the ship. This was so the group could stay together during the tour and so that we could sign in and given a sticker for everyone on that tour, so as to be recognized and stay together.
The process of disembarking the ship was fairly organized. 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.
Once off the ship, we met our tour and heritage guide dressed in 1797 period clothing at the pier and walked approximately 100 yards, to Plaza Colón and Museo del Mar where a historical overview by our guide was given. This tour does have long periods of walking over some uneven surfaces and some pretty steep inclines. I don’t know if the tour had prior knowledge that a guest would be in a wheelchair, but they did have someone there that helped push me up some of the steeper inclines and navigate sections of the fort. I fear without his help, someone without good upper body strength or a companion would have a very hard time doing this tour. The tour itself was excellent, and if you’re a history buff, or have a bucket list to visit a UNESCO World Heritage site, then I recommend you do it. The Castillo is very accessible, and I was able to navigate pretty much all the parts that the tour took us on. I was able to navigate some of the rougher terrain parts of the tour, that took you thru some underground tunnels and over dirt paths, but this may be a challenging depending on your skill level maneuvering your chair. There were a few exceptions that didn’t have any wheelchair access, and I had to wait for the tour to visit those areas and regroup after. This gave me the opportunity to look around and take pictures and talk to the tour guide who was helping me navigate the inclines.
When the tour ended, everyone was given a certificate declaring you as a member of the “Regimiento Fijo” the civilian militia, and was directed to the gift shop. The shop was small, but I was able to maneuver around it without any difficulty, again depending on how crowded the shop is, may cause some challenges. 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 before the stated back on the ship time.
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. I will be covering over a lot of the same information from my first article here, so you can skip this section or continue to read on. 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. For this cruise, we didn’t book any Port Adventures (see my other article to read our Port Adventure while on the Wonder), rather we got off the ship as early as possible and made our way down to Serenity Bay by tram and secured a set of hammocks right near the main pathway. We learnt from our previous cruises that 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. We decided to walk the 5k/bike path around part of the island on our way back from Serenity Bay instead of taking the tram. As it can get very hot and sunny on the island, if you’re going to do this, make sure you have some water with you.
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.
I continue to say that 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 been on 4 Disney Cruises, with another booked for Nov 2015 that will bump us up to Gold Castaway Club members. I have one more cruise article to write about, our 7 day Western Caribbean cruise, with two excellent port adventures. 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. 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.