Disney Cruise Line Trip Report #41

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Trip Report #41: Christmas on Castaway Cay
For the past five years, my husband has been nagging me to spend Christmas on the Magic or Wonder. But since we traditionally sail for Thanksgiving, I’ve always insisted that we spend at least one of the two end-of-the-year major holidays with our family. But now, our nephews and nieces are at or near adulthood. They have other commitments for Christmas (visiting the families of significant others and such), so our family gathering had shifted to a week or two before the actual holiday. That means this year we were finally free to take a cruise on Christmas and spend December 25th luxuriating on Castaway Cay and slogging through sand instead of snowdrifts.

As with all of our cruises, this one started at the airport. We were booked to fly out on Wednesday night, and it was a darned good thing. The weather was bad enough on Wednesday, and by Thursday it resulted in so many delays and cancellations that the Wonder left Port Canaveral an hour late after waiting for delayed passengers. Even with the late departure, nine cruisers still had to catch up with us the next day in Nassau.

Our flight was delayed for an hour, and we bounced and jolted through turbulence nearly the whole way. I am a paranoid flyer, but before we left, my husband showed me the radar. As long as I know beforehand, it’s not so scary for me. We were flying ATA, as usual, and I was in good spirits because I had recently learned that they wouldn’t be leaving Chicago. They planned to pull out after their bankruptcy, but Southwest bailed them out in a deal that will allow them to retain several dates. Their Orlando routes are generally busy and profitable, so hopefully ATA will keep them.

On Thursday morning, we had booked Happy Limo to drive us to Port Canaveral. At the last minute, I had decided that we should do a grocery stop on the way. It’s a free service, but I was a little worried because I didn’t request it until the night before (normally, you should ask for it when making your booking). Fortunately, it was no problem to add the stop. However, since I’d set up our pick-up time without figuring in the stop, we arrived at Port Canaveral a little later than normal. Usually I like to get there before 11, but this time we arrived around 11:15. Happily, the security line was almost non-existent, and we waited maybe a minute in the check-in line. As late as it was, I expected the embarkation line to be quite long, but it was minimal. My husband pointed out that many people might have spent some time at Disney World and would be arriving later on the resort buses.

We sail hello to our many friends at the port, but we didn’t have much time to chat because boarding began a little before noon. We paused for our embarkation photo and then stepped aboard the gloriously decorated ship, with a member of the cruise staff announcing our family name (a bit of fanfare that Disney Cruise Line does for all the guests).

We made our way to Parrot Cay for our embarkation lunch. I was glad to see that the cold melon soup has been switched back to strawberry soup. My husband likes melons, but they are one of the very few foods that I cannot stand. I will eat watermelon in small doses, but I have no use for the rest of the melon family. Honeydew, cantaloupe…blecch!! The other selections were the standard fare: yummy salads, a selection of hot entrees (I like the turkey parmesan) and freshly carved ham. For kids, or those who want plainer fare, there is a special area with selections like chicken fingers and macaroni and cheese, and there is also a selection of sandwiches. And be sure to save room for a selection (or two or three) from the dessert table! Personally, the strawberry soup is enough dessert for me, but my husband can never resist.

When we were done eating, we headed up to deck 5 to see if our stateroom was ready. The stated time is 1:30 p.m., but sometimes they are ready early. This time around, they weren’t ready until the appointed time, so we set off to gather up kids navigators for my website in the meantime. This is also the time when Palo and spa reservations are taken. You book your spa appointments on deck 9 forward, and Palo reservations are typically taken in Wavebands on deck 3 forward. We stopped in to Wavebands to say hi to Rita and our other friends in the dining area. Surprisingly, the crowd of people booking Palo wasn’t too big. We planned our Palo dinner for Nassau day, which is our traditional day to dine there.

Back in our stateroom, we dug out our swim gear for our traditional embarkation day dip in the hot tub. As usual, we were staying in stateroom 5650, which I affectionately call the Barb and Tony Suite. It’s actually a typical Category 6 room, although the verandah is a little larger than the standard. I love it for its quiet, out-of-the-way, far-aft location. I also prefer deck 5 in general because I like to be as close to the water as possible, and that’s the lowest deck with verandahs. We had the same stateroom host as we’d had for Thanksgiving, and he even remembered my preferences. I am very fussy with shampoo and wash my hair obsessively when cruising, since it’s always either all wet and messy from the pool or oily from a massage. He remembered to keep me well supplied.

Usually there are at least a few other people in the pool or hot tubs, but this time we were alone. We soaked for a while, and then headed back to our stateroom to see if our luggage had arrived so we could unpack before the 4 p.m. safety drill. We arrived just as our bags were being brought out of the luggage room and to our door…perfect timing!

My husband, who is the packer/unpacker in our house, has a meticulous system, so I just stayed out of the way and let him do his job. He had everything together by the time we had to don our lifejackets and head to assembly station Q, which is down one deck in Animators Palate. Even in 41 cruises, we are still required to attend. I know that it’s important, just in case an emergency should ever arise (and, although rare, it can indeed happen…just ask the cruisers who were aboard the Magic when it had a funnel fire a few years back).

After the drill, it was spa time. Since we’ve seen the sailaway many times, lately we’re taken to booking spa treatments to kick off our cruise. Actually, this time around, sailaway was delayed anyway due to all of the flight delays. I did hear the Mickey whistle at its usual time while I was prone on the massage table, but I knew by the absence of motion that we were still at Port Canaveral.

Later, we were able to watch the delayed departure from our verandah. I’m used to leaving while it’s still daylight; it was quite eerie, but pretty, to sail out among the twinkling lights on shore. It reminded me of our hurricane cruise adventure, when we’d departed from Fort Lauderdale. That had been a night sailing, too, although it had been a very industrial area, with airplanes coming and going right overhead since Port Everglades is close to the airport.

We passed the restaurants, with snippets of live music drifting over to our ears. Because it was dark, we could see inside the gambling boats that were docked and waiting for the next group of people to come aboard with pockets full of money and heads full of dreams of riches. When we reached the campground, it was nearly deserted. I missed seeing all the happy people waving to the parade of ships as they headed out to sea.

We hadn’t managed to try out the Cove Café on our Thanksgving cruise, so we decided to get some coffee before seeing Hercules. The café is an adults-only coffee bar, located in the area formerly occupied by Common Grounds (the teen club is now The Stack, in the old ESPN Lounge). It’s a nice, comfy space where you can watch a big screen television or don headphones and listen to music while enjoying specialty coffees or chai. The only thing I didn’t like is that while the interior is non-smoking, there are tables for smokers outside, and the position of the door sucks in all the smoke every time it is opened. It’s sort of like a wind tunnel; there’s no way I could ever sit in the front area. Fortunately, it wasn’t crowded, so we were able to able to preserve our lungs while enjoying our beverages.

Our dinner that night was in Triton’s, and we hit it off immediately with our seat mates. I always love sitting at a big table and meeting new people. It turns out that one of them is an entertainer who often plays at the Bahama Breeze restaurants in the Orlando area, as well as at the seafood restaurant in the Gaylord Palms hotel. Since we enjoy those restaurants, I am sure that we will run into him again someday. His wife is a singer who has performed with the Voices of Liberty at Disney World.

After dinner, we crashed early, exhausted from a long and exciting day. The next day would be our “day at sea:; even though we would be docked in Nassau, my husband and I have seen it enough, so we stay on board and enjoy the uncrowded ship. Our typical routine is to place a room service order the night before and use the delivery as our wake up call the next morning. Then we enjoy our food and coffee out on the verandah.

Usually the sound of the thrusters while docking acts as an alarm clock, too, but this time we must have been in a coma because we never stirred until after the ship was docked. Too bad; I enjoy waking up in time to see the docking process.

We had a day of spa treatments, Rain Forest relaxation, and general laziness planned, to be topped off with dinner at Palo. My husband loves his seaweed wraps, while lately I tend to go for the hot stone massage. I had been toying with doing the Ladies Morning special, which is offered on Nassau day, but I ended up opting for the stones. In the Rainforest, I spent some pleasant time curled up in a heated tile lounger, reading my book. I capped that with a spin in the scented showers. The sent is so pleasant; I can even smell it on my swimsuit after it dries (so much nicer than chlorine from the hot tub!).

It was the night of my favorite show, “The Golden Mickeys.” My husband, a die-hard “Disney Dreams” fan, thinks that I’m crazy, but I love the fast pace and the selection of numbers. There is always something going on, in rapid ADHD succession. Because of that, it seems like this show also has the most potential for technical glitches. There was a glitch on our last cruise and this time around, too (a non-functioning lift that resulted in the Lion King performs singing offstage for the first part of the number instead of rising up on an elevated platform). But that’s okay, it’s still a great show. Of course, the fact that my favorite character, Stitch, makes an appearance, might be influencing my opinion somewhat.

One neat Christmas offering that we noticed on the first two nights was free wrapping for onboard purchases. I am a total ninny at wrapping, so I made some purchases for friends back home and let the pros make it look pretty.

After the show and our shopping, we donned our dressy clothes and headed up to deck 10 for our special dinner. Our Palo meal was fantastic, as usual. I don’t think I’ve ever once had a bad meal there. Their filet mignon is always a good choice, but the pasta dishes can easily tempt you away. They have lasagna as a special on certain nights, and it is to die for! I do NOT typically like lasagna, so it is a real compliment for me to say that I adore the Palo version. My husband and I have learned to skip the antipasto, not because it’s bad (believe me, it’s wonderful), but because that leaves us more room for the other dishes. Starting off with the Italian fish soup is a must, and the bread with an array of sauces is like an appetizer in itself.

Usually I have the chocolate souffle, but this time (gasp!) I broke with my long-standing tradition and had the dessert pizza. It’s hard to describe, but I do recommend it. It is topped with berries and is not as rich as some of the desserts, so it would be ideal if you’re not a big chocolate fan or if you’re looking for something a little lighter (although “light” is a relative term). After our Palo meal, we were ready to roll back to our stateroom and into bed, where it took all of our bodily resources to digest the meal.

We woke up Christmas morning to the sight of tropical paradise Castaway Cay. Certainly not the traditional “White Christmas” sung of by Bing Crosby, but far superior in my estimation. Even after his journey around the world, Santa Claus had found time to make a stop on the Wonder to hand out gifts (elf hats) to all the children. He was also spotted later on the island, posing for photographs. After such a busy night, I’m sure he was happy to have a little R & R.

The island is also decked out for the sea, and you even get Disney soap sud “snow.” That’s fine with me! I don’t need the real thing; I’d rather have the soap and the balmy temperatures.

Winter can be iffy for swimming, depending on which part of the country you hail from. Being a hearty born-and-bred Chicagoan, it takes quite a chill to keep me out of the water. As it turned out, the weather was very pleasant, with temperatures hovering in the low 80s. My husband set off for snorkeling at the adult beach, while I claimed a hammock on the family beach and settled in for some relaxation. After he returned, I let him take over while I did some swimming. The water was pretty well populated. We were near Cookies Barbecue, which was quite convenient at lunchtime. My only disappointment was that my hamburger was gristly, which is not the norm. I love the fresh tropical salad; it’s not in the main serving line, so watch for the salad station when you head over.

My husband wandered off for some more fun in the water. I had a spa appointment back on board, so I would have to return to the ship a little early. Normally, I like to cap my Castaway Cay day with reflexology. This time, I tried something new; I don’t recall the name, but it was some sort of scalp massage which is done in the beauty parlor part of the spa. When I closed my eyes and sank back in the chair, it was easy to forget where I was sitting and drift off into blissful relaxation.

I met up with my husband back in our stateroom. I had been enjoying some quality verandah time, which is usually in short supply on the three night cruise. He told me he had spontaneously decided to see if there was any space available on the last jet ski tour. He had done it many months ago, back when it was a brand new offering. At that time, it wasn’t well known, so he was the only person on his tour! This time around, it was almost full. There was just one spot left, so he grabbed it. While I was relaxing in the spa, he had had a fun jaunt rocking through the waves around the island.

After sailaway, it was time for the Castaway Club party. It was held in Studio Sea, as it wasn’t a very large one, although that is a relative term. I still remember the days when the ship’s officers outnumbered the guests. Back when Disney Cruise Line first set sail, there sometimes were as few as three to five families! Actually, I remember the days when there was no party at all, since our first repeat cruise was in February of 1999 (our first sailing was in September of 1998, and I think it was on the Magic’s 11th voyage). The party is a nice opportunity for snacks and drinks. My husband always enjoys a glass of wine, while I am partial to the punch. Several officers circulate among the crowd, and then the captain gives a little welcome speech. After 41 Disney cruises, attending the party has become a tradition for us. I like it because it’s much more intimate than the huge affairs on a line like Royal Caribbean. On their ships, it seems like the majority of passengers are repeaters, and their parties are nicely catered but they tend to be mob scenes.

The show that night was “Disney Dreams,” my husband’s favorite.

On the way back to our stateroom, my husband noticed that “Who Wants to Be a Mouseketeer” was starting in Studio Sea. We popped in to give it a shot; it’s no longer a big production, with the change to win money and a free cruise, but you can win a really cool paperweight. We’ve gone a couple of times and haven’t managed to be chosen as contestants, so we figured we’d give it another shot. I always know all of the answers (although with my luck, if I ever get picked, they’ll pop me with a doozy like something ESPN related that I haven’t got a clue about). The show started late due to technical difficulties, so we had to duck out before the end in order to get dressed for dinner.

At dinner that evening, we were glad to see our tablemates again. When you have compatible fellow diners, the three day cruise goes by much too quickly, especially if you go to Palo one night. Our last meal was in Parrot Cay, as usual, with all of the fanfare of the limbo line and the boisterous last night farewell. Lately we haven’t been going to the 70s party; as much as I hate to miss it, it’s too rough to stay up late and then have to wake up early for disembarkation the next morning. Instead, we tend to sack out early, then sleep in a bit and skip breakfast. That’s never a hardship, since we tend to eat like pigs for the three previous days.

I give Disney kudos for their disembarkation process in just about every trip report, and they really deserve it. You won’t appreciate it unless you’ve experienced the special hell that the other cruise lines put you through. With the exception of some times after 9/11 when the terrorism alert level was raised, Disney’s process is fast and painless. You don’t have to wait until they deem to let you leave, which can literally be hours on a line like Royal Caribbean. When you’re ready, you just leave. Your bags will be waiting for you down in the terminal building unless you are like us and simply keep them with you (I don’t recommend that unless you travel light).

We headed to the nice new pick-up area that Disney recently constructed. The limo drivers were clustered at the head of the area; my husband quickly found our Happy Limo driver, who pulled up the towncar so we could hop in for the drive back to Orlando, where we were staying through New Years. It had been an unusual Christmas for someone who is used to spending the holiday in sub-zero temperatures, but I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. Holidays are always fun, but it’s an extra added benefit when you can spend them in a tropical paradise.